After an impressive 126-101 drubbing of the third seed Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics are now 12-3 on the season. They have taken the lead of the Eastern Conference by half a game over the Milwaukee Bucks who have now lost three of their last five outings after a league-best 9-0 start.
Boston has now won its last eight contests and their 7.1 point differential is fittingly the highest in the NBA at the moment. The Celtics look like a team on a mission after falling short in last season’s NBA Finals and Jayson Tatum has once again set the tone for them in this new campaign.
While the 24-year-old Tatum is the fifth leading scorer in the league behind Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, his current average of 31.1 points per game would typically lead the league in an ordinary year. This eclipses his current career-high of 26.9 which he set last year and he is poised to blow this number out of the water in ‘22-’23.
Tatum is also averaging 7.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks as he continues to mature into a complete player.
However, what makes this Boston team even more fearsome is that they are not entirely dependent on Tatum. In their most recent win over the Hawks–a team that has beaten the Bucks twice over the last nine days–eight different players saw at least 23 minutes of action and seven of them scored at least 14 points.
The lone player that did not score in double figures was veteran center Al Horford who contributed in his typical fashion through other means. The five-time NBA All-Star tallied seven points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and a block coupled with his trademark solid defense.
Tatum was held by Atlanta to a season-low 19 points on an abysmal six-of-19 shooting, but he helped in other ways with seven rebounds, eight assists, a steal, and a block. His teammates were more than willing to pick up some of the scoring load too as his long-time running mate Jaylen Brown hit 10-of-17 shots en route to 22 points, five rebounds, and two steals.
Despite the fact that Brown’s playmaking remains a major weakness in his game, it has not stopped him from evolving into a top tier scorer. Like Tatum, he is averaging a career-high in points so far this season with 25.4 which is slightly higher than his previous best of 24.7 from ‘20-’21. Brown made it to his lone NBA All-Star game that season, though he is likely to earn his second nod this year given the Celtics’ strong play.
Beyond their players with NBA All-Star experience, the rest of Boston’s roster has stepped up as well. What made their victory against the Hawks even more stunning was that they were without their two primary point guards, Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, who were sidelined by minor injuries.
Derrick White shouldered most of their load, putting up 16 points on 11 shots, 10 assists, five rebounds, and a block while back-up guard Payton Pritchard chipped in with 14 points on five-of-eight shooting, three rebounds, four assists, a steal, and just one turnover.
It is encouraging that these two performed the way that they did in the face of the added responsibility, especially when remembering that the Celtics’ lack of playmaking beyond Tatum and Brown was influential in their downfall during the last few NBA Finals games last year. Brogdon’s arrival was primarily driven by this, yet they cannot be overly dependent on the 29-year-old guard due to his injury history.
Meanwhile in the frontcourt, Grant Williams, Sam Hauser, and Luke Kornet have capitalized on the extended minutes that they have been able to play in the absence of defensive stalwart Robert Williams. The perimeter shooting of this trio has been invaluable to Boston’s spacing and their showing versus Atlanta was their finest one yet as these three players combined for ten three-pointers.
Grant Williams, who is starting in place of Robert Williams, hit four-of-seven three pointers on the way to finishing with 18 points. The reserves Hauser and Kornet were even more on-point as the former attempted six three pointers and missed only one. Kornet made only one three, but he made all seven shots that he attempted during the evening. Both players finished with 15 points apiece.
Boston is looking fearsome a month into this new season, though the health of their roster will be the biggest question mark for them once the playoffs arrive in a few months’ time. Robert Williams playing at what looked like half of his typical level was a severe blow for them and Tatum was reportedly slowed by injury as well.
Having said that, the recent emergence of their supporting cast is encouraging and could help abate this risk over the course of the regular season. Their ability to share the load for this team will help preserve their key pieces for the home stretch of the postseason and hopefully allow them to embark on another deep run.
The Celtics are clearly motivated by the heartbreak of last June’s NBA Finals and it will be their role players, not just their stars, who will help them determine if they can finally get over the hump to win the franchise’s 18th NBA title.