Fans of the Boston Celtics have witnessed in 2022-23 a team that can be electrifying and entertaining. A team that can also be maddening to watch and at times, disengaged with opponents.
The playoffs have encapsulated these things for the Celtics with precision. Taking six games to defeat an Atlanta Hawks team that, while possessing exciting talent, should have been defeated in four.
The same frustration and exaltation is present in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. This is a team the Celtics nearly swept during the regular season, if not for a 52-point performance by MVP Joel Embiid.
So what happens? A Game 1 loss for the Celtics with Embiid sidelined. Games 2 and 3 with Embiid in the lineup? Victories, of course, with Boston playing some of their best team basketball of the season.
Balanced attack for Boston Celtics
Heading into the playoffs, there was an awareness the Celtics had much better depth than they had a season ago. Having two of the league’s best players can only carry a team so far and a balanced effort was going to be needed for the Celtics to lockdown banner 18.
This has proven to be exactly the case in the two victories against Philadelphia.
In Game 2, players stepped up in the absence of Jayson Tatum, who was saddled with foul trouble. After delivering 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists in Game 1’s loss, Tatum played only 19 minutes and scored only seven points in the Game 2 victory.
Thankfully, five other players scored in double digits and a barrage of three-pointers in the second-half put this game out of reach in a 121-87 victory.
With the huge lead in the fourth, the Celtics rested many of what has become an eight-person rotation. Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams gave valuable bench minutes, combining for 35 points and 10 made 3’s. And Derrick White bounced back from Game 1 struggles to contribute to the victory.
Game 2 was just a precursor to Game 3, as far as a team effort was concerned. This is happening on both ends of the court, where Boston is playing much better defense.
Tatum announced himself early, scoring ten of his team-high 27 points in the first quarter. He was one of six Celtics to score in double figures.
Each of these players took turns scoring in stretches and making big shots. One spurt would be Marcus Smart followed by Al Horford hitting down big three-pointers. Or Horford’s defense leading to Brogdon and White hitting floaters in the lane.
Through it all this series, the most consistent has been Jaylen Brown.
Brown, who closed the Hawks series averaging over 30 points in the last three games, picked up with the same intensity. Scoring is down to 23.7 so far against the Sixers but Brown is shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep.
Tatum and Brown and have carried this team but for Boston to keep rolling, the third-and-fourth scoring options need to keep contributing.
Boston Celtics: A tremendous trio
The play of Boston’s two stars gets much of the attention but it’s Brogdon, Smart, and White who ultimately own the keys to raising another banner.
When one is off their game, or sitting out, Boston struggles. This goes for defense and offense but it’s especially evident when only one of the three is scoring.
To reach their highest potential, the Celtics need at least two of these three scoring a combined 35-40 points per game.
In Game 1, White’s struggles were evident, scoring only 4 points and attempting 5 shots. Smart and Brogdon combined for 32, with most of those coming from Brogdon’s 20.
The last two wins have been much better. Game 2 was probably the best effort on offense for this trio, combining for 53 points. And they were just as balanced on Friday, chipping in 43 points.
Brogdon, the NBA Sixth Man of the Year, is averaging nearly 20 points this series and dished out six assists in Game 3. Smart, banged up and bruised, had seven assists in Game 1, was 7-14 from the field in Game 2, and had three steals in Game 3.
More of this concentrated team effort is expected going forward. Whether is be scoring from the trio, the hard-nosed play of Williams, or a 70-point combined effort of Brown and Tatum, Boston is best when the team remains engaged with their opponent. Hopefully, it’s a trend that holds true from here on out and the Celtics keep laying basketball for another month.