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Sports

The Boston Celtics Keep It Simple, Win Game 3

The NBA Finals, like everything else now, is just another culture war. It’s the newly-dynastic Warriors against the 17-bannered Celtics. This is a showdown between the technocratic nouveau riche and the Boston Brahmin, savvy and skill versus size and athleticism, collectivism versus individualism, art versus science.

For the first two games, the Warriors dictated the terms of engagement—the Celtics may have stolen Game 1, but they aped the Warriors’ small-ball, trigger-happy lineups in the process and rode 9 fourth quarter threes to victory. In Game 2, the Warriors held serve because they’re the Warriors, buoyed by the world-building greatness of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. During their 116-100 Game 3 victory, though, the Celtics rediscovered what made them the best team in the NBA, bludgeoning the Warriors by becoming the truest distillation of themselves.

From the game’s opening tip, the Celtics unveiled a streamlined, more economic vision of their offense. Golden State’s defense may thrive on its ability to resist decision fatigue and navigate chaos, but Boston blitzed the Warriors for 33 first quarter points by simplifying their offense to only its most essential components; Boston’s already vanilla menu of sets was pared down even further. Namely, the Celtics trained their crosshairs on Curry, daring him to stop guys he patently isn’t able to stop. After guarding just 18 drives and 22 pick-and-rolls in the first two games combined, Curry guarded 18 drives and 15 pick-and-rolls in Game 3 alone. The formula was simple and repeatable: let Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum pick on Curry and give them the room to unleash the dawg in them. 

Accordingly, both Brown and Tatum had their best game of the series, alternately creating and capitalizing on advantages—Brown paced the team with 27 points, highlighted by a 17 point masterclass in the first quarter; Tatum finally shook loose for 26 points and a game-high nine assists. As a result of the Warriors telegraphing their rudimentary coverages, Brown and Tatum became the playmakers that they’re often maligned for not being, attracting help defense and then spraying the ball to shooters. Even a brutish offensive player like Marcus Smart got some kicks in, hanging 12 of his 24 points on Curry.  

Beyond exposing Curry’s defensive flaws, the Celtics limited Draymond Green’s defensive brilliance. Rather than let Draymond Green freestyle and meander his way to the exact right place to blow up a play, the Celtics prescribed Green to specific, predictable rotations. Instead of being a destructive genius, Green became an ordinary help defender rotating as the low-man or digging from the strongside corner—the two-time Defensive Player of the Year transformed into just another defensive player. Rattled by the weirdly personal “fuck you, Draymond” chants from Brookliners and Newtonites cosplaying as Southies, Green fouled out in the fourth quarter, getting an early start on prepping for his podcast. 

Just as the Celtics succeeded by stripping down their offense, they bottled up the Warriors’ offense by forcing the Warriors’ offense to play a basic, constrained style as well. If most NBA offenses try to collapse defenses from the inside-out, the Warriors stretch their opponents out, the mere prospect of Curry getting provoking the same response as when a poodle gets loose from the dog run. Jordan Poole is the only Warrior with a bag much bigger than a fanny pack, but Curry routinely demands double-teams from the court’s outer rim and allows his teammates to attack hectares of open space all the same.  

As such, the Celtics put together their best defensive performance of the Finals by, uh, letting Curry do whatever he wanted. Despite a splendid game from Curry (31 points on 22 shots), Boston was chilling; Al Horford and Robert Williams hunkered down in drop coverage even as the Warriors ripped off one of their patented third quarter heaters. It worked: the Warriors’ buzzsaw never got going and their 22 assists were their lowest mark of the postseason. Opting to play Curry’s pick-and-rolls straight-up, Boston demonstrated their pain tolerance; it sucks to watch Curry go nuclear against a back-pedaling Al Horford, but letting Curry and Green and Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole run you into oblivion sucks way more. 

Although Boston’s actual game plan wasn’t so different than it was in Game 2, Robert Williams looked healthy for the first time all postseason. Like Walton Goggins or a saxophone in a rock song, Williams makes things better. The one true Defensive Player of the Year, Williams put the screws to Golden State during his 26 minutes. By dint of being huge and able to jump extremely high, Williams added some bite to Boston’s conservative defense; his four blocks were a game-high and he snagged three steals from a skittish Curry in the fourth quarter. 

While Al Horford (or, as Mark Jackson says, Owl Haawfud) is an excellent defensive center in his own right, he lacks a certain fear factor; Curry had no qualms about launching pull-up threes over Horford’s contests. Conversely, Williams is terrifying; his wingspan is nearly eight-feet long! He creates anxiety—open shots are sabotaged by sideways glances, contested shots are swatted. With Williams, drop coverage isn’t so much a concession as it is a threat—just try to shoot over me, he taunts. An elite shot-blocker, Williams cordons off the interior—the Celtics notched twice as many points in the paint as the Warriors (52 to 26) and out-rebounded them by 16 (47 to 31). Unsurprisingly, the Celtics outscored Golden State by 21 points when Williams was on the court.

Through three games, the Finals have carried the sense that the Celtics are in control—they aren’t necessarily the “better” team, but it’s their effort that determines the outcome of each game. Whereas the Warriors precisely combine and recombine, a golden spiral sketched out on a basketball court, the Celtics are variable and raw. Each game, the Warriors offer up a riddle that’s up to the Celtics to find ways to solve. For now, at least, the Celtics seem to have cracked the Warriors’ code because they’re the bigger, stronger, faster, more adaptable team. Simple as that. 

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Sports

Can Jayson Tatum Live Up to the Hype in the NBA Finals?

Jayson Tatum is the next, great NBA superstar—or so we’re told. At just 24 years old, he’s been the breakout player of these playoffs, leading the Boston Celtics to the Finals and grabbing the inaugural Eastern Conference Finals MVP along the way. His stats are sparkling (26.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game) and his tough shot-making gives him a sense of unguardable inevitability. A studied follower of the Mamba Mentality, Tatum has recreated his mentor’s graceful midrange game—and also his knack for a certain kind of cringey, performative grindset. Whereas new-age stars like Nikola Jokic or Giannis Antetokounmpo are both future Hall of Famers in unprecedented ways, Tatum is an All-Star straight out of central casting. He went to Duke and plays for the Celtics and scores lots of points. He can sling cold cults like a champ. There’s a certain tautology to it all: Tatum is a star because everyone keeps saying he’s a star.

Even if Tatum is certainly a great player, he also hasn’t been the undisputed top dog in any of Boston’s playoff series this year. Against the Nets, Tatum swept Kevin Durant, but Durant had to contend with Boston’s league-leading defense and Tatum got to feast on Bruce Brown. In the second round, Tatum was soundly outdueled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, a sobering reminder of the gap between Tatum and the NBA’s absolute elite. Only the staunchest Tatum-heads would argue that Tatum played better than Jimmy Butler after Butler and an undermanned Heat team nearly pipped the Celtics for a Finals berth. 

A cynic could say that the Boston Media Mafia has manufactured consent around their favorite son. Ever since Tatum boomed Lebron James in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, the media apparatchik has thrown its full weight behind Tatum; Bill Simmons and his cartel of influential, trend-setting media members with New England ties have taken up Tatum as their cause celebre and elevated his standing in the general basketball discourse. To his credit, Tatum has validated a lot of the media’s shamrock-tinted gaslighting—he truly is among the best two dozen basketball players alive. And yet, when a Celtic who was patently not the most valuable player in the Eastern Conference Finals saunters across the stage to collect the freshly minted Larry Bird and Bob Cousy trophies, it’s hard to not grow suspicious of how and why it happened. 

In this sense, there’s a growing rupture between the perception that Tatum is in the midst of an all-time great postseason run and the reality that he’s merely having a very good one. Notably, Tatum is a lackluster playmaker for a player this lauded and prolific—amongst the 64 players who Basketball Index classifies as either a “shot creator” or “primary ball-handler,” Tatum ranks 50th in passing creation volume (their proprietary metric for evaluating the true impact of a player’s passing). 

While Tatum has pumped up his assist totals in the playoffs to nearly six per game, his playmaking ceiling is capped by his inability to stress multiple layers of a defense. Despite his size and athleticism, the 6’8 Tatum is a begrudging interior presence, scoring only 6.9 points on his 13.9 drives per game in the ‘yoffs, figures that lag behind gimmicky guards like Jordan Clarkson and centers like Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite his marionette-ish slipperiness with the ball, Tatum’s handle is more flashy than functional at this point; hounded by Miami’s handsy defenders, he barfed up nearly five turnovers a game.

As such, his reliance on his jumper allows Tatum to thrive against nearly every imaginable defensive coverage, but it leaves the Celtics vulnerable to spells of point-less grossness if Tatum is running cold; he has an icy 51.4 percent True Shooting in Boston’s 31 losses, compared to a rosier 61.3 percent True Shooting mark in their 51 wins. Tatum’s greatest asset as a scorer (his gobsmacking shot-making) feeds into his main offensive deficiency—when you can routinely drain impossible shots yourself, there’s no incentive to fuss for easier ones for your teammates. At a certain point for Tatum and the Celtics, being a bucket becomes a problem.

Although these Finals don’t represent some legacy-defining moment for the 24 year-old Tatum, they will provide some much-needed present clarity—it’s not that Boston’s boy-emperor has no clothes, but it’s unknown if he’s dressed in stylish gorpcore.

If Tatum is truly the generational scorer that a city full of lesser Wahlberg siblings believes him to be, he should have no problem vivisecting Golden State’s switching defense. His fellow All-NBA First-Teamer Luka Doncic just hung 32 points, nine rebounds and 6 assists per game on the Warriors, so surely Tatum can do the same, right? By taking home the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy to pair with his Larry Bird and Bob Cousy ones, Tatum could once and for all prove he’s not a creation of Boston-obsessed basket-bloggers. For Boston to capture the title, Tatum needs to prove his lovers correct.

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Sports Strength

The Celtics’ Record Is Not As Bad As It Looks

For most teams that fancy themselves a contender, starting 2-5 with the league’s 27th ranked defense while one of their star players struggled with post-Covid lethargy would be bad enough. For the Boston Celtics, all that tumult has simply been a prelude to the newest indignity: Marcus Smart is mad! 

“There’s only so much I can do without the ball in my hands. I’m just standing in the corner,” said Smart after their 128-114 defeat to the Chicago Bulls on November 1st. “Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown]. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”

While this kind of sour-grapes grousing is hardly uncommon on an underperforming team, Smart is also mostly right—Tatum and Brown are two of the most prolific bucket-getters in the world and the Celtics understandably  empower them by design. In particular, Tatum is nourished with healthy servings of isolations and shots and leads the league in field goal attempts. The problem: this year, he’s not making very many shots and is handicapping Boston as a result. 

After nearly a decade of consecutive playoff appearances, the Celtics have spent the first seven games of this year gorging on a rich tasting menu of losses. Through seven games, they’ve lost a double-overtime heartbreaker (a 138-134 defeat to the New York Knicks in their season opener), been boat-raced into oblivion (a 115-83 shellacking at the hands of the frisky Toronto Raptors) and utterly melted down in the fourth quarter (a 128-114  loss to the Chicago Bulls, punctuated by Chicago’s 39-11 run in the fourth quarter). 

We’re, as the kids would say, smoking on that shamrock pack. 

Even under the stewardship of former head coach/boy-genius Brad Stevens, this has never been a notably artful or intricate offense; instead, they succeeded because of the blunt force inflicted upon defenses by Tatum’s scoring. Tatum is a hardwood sin-eater, salvaging directionless possessions with his shot-making. Despite his status as a premier offensive player, though, Tatum has never been especially proficient at generating easy opportunities; instead, his greatest utility is derived from his comfort trafficking in heavily contested, difficult attempts. 

As such, Tatum’s early slump is hardly a cause for alarm; these kinds of valleys are baked into his game. When a player adopts a shot profile as consistently difficult as Tatum, slumps are inevitable. For the season, Tatum has taken more “tightly” contested shots (defined as shots when a defense is within two to four feet) than every player besides Kevin Durant; similarly, he’s consumed the third-most isolations in the NBA. On their own, these stats aren’t harmful or even that different from Tatum’s previous seasons—Tatum’s current shot distribution is practically identical to his one last year. 

Whereas Tatum’s All-Star contemporaries like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant thrive because of their ability to lift their team’s attack regardless of their individual scoring output, Tatum is a more constrained and less enthusiastic passer. By and large, his offense is only as good as his shooting percentages. 

Accordingly, Tatum’s glacial start to the season has revealed the inherent flaws of a Celtics’ offense that’s so heavily reliant on Tatum’s shot-making to prop them up; this season is less of an indictment on Tatum than it is of the Celtics’ choice to build around a high-variance scorer whose style renders him susceptible to these kinds of droughts. Tatum will invariably play like an All-Star again and lift the Celtics into playoff contention, but the Celtics’ structural precarity ensures that any potential playoff appearance will be brief.

Still, Tatum and the Celtics aren’t as bad as their record. Besides uncharacteristically crummy shooting, they return the same core that made the playoffs last season and have maintained similar shooting profiles on offense and defense. As hilarious as it would be if Jayson Tatum morphed into Zoomer Antoine Walker and harpooned the Celtics’ season, that (sadly) probably won’t happen. The Celtics will probably not be a very good team—they just don’t have the talent to hang with the Bucks or Nets or Heat or Hawks or even the Knicks. But they certainly won’t continue to be a terrible one.