NBA Round 2 Update

With Round 2 of the NBA playoffs in full swing, here’s a look at the big stories making news.

With the Hall of Fame induction of Jayson Tatum on hold after a terrible Game 1 and an awful Game 3 (4-for-19 shooting, 1 rebound) vs. Milwaukee, with a 47-point effort by Ja Morant in Memphis’ Game 2 win over Golden State it looks more like the playoffs are Ja Breaker’s coming out party to enter the NBA Top 10 player list. His nothing-but-net mid-court buzzer-beater at halftime in Game 3 was a beauty. That dude can play and boy does he have hop and hang time. Yikes.

Give Jrue Holiday and Wes Matthews credit for Tatum’s struggles. Their perimeter D has been sensational and it has totally messed up the Celtics half-court offense.

NBA 101: Who holds the record for taking the most foul shots in a game without making one?

Include me as one who felt a bit sorry for Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton as he went 4 for 22 overall from the free throw line and 1-10 in Game 4, because he’s a good young player and is going to get better. The good news is Wilt Chamberlain was once worse, going 1-11 from the stripe in the famed Willis Reed Game 7 of the 1970 Finals.

Back to the Morant for a second. Was he sending a message to GS coach Steve Kerr when he posted on Twitter about Jordan Poole “breaking the code” after his Game 3 injury? Because that’s the same phrase Kerr used when Steph Curry got hurt after being entangled with Marcus Smart during his dive for a loose ball in March.

I hate to harp on the officiating, but it looks to be a big story line going forward after being a big issue during the first three Boston-Milwaukee. For example: Somebody tell me what the rule is. Been watching missed calls repeatedly on guys stepping in bounds before passing the ball in after a made basket. In Game 3 Jaylen Brown passed one in with both feet clearly on the base line, and Brooks Lopez stepped in bounds with the ball in his hands, then stepped back out of bounds to pass it. In my world that’s a turnover. And they’re in the lane all the time before foul shots are taken.

It was pretty rich seeing Mike Budenholzer going berserk after an obvious Tatum offensive foul went non-call. He was right, it definitely was a foul, but, but, but after what his star gets away with on every drive to the basket Budenholzer should shut up and stay on the bench. If they let Shaq get away with all the contact Giannis Antetokounmpo gets away with, people would still be in traction today. Love his effort and fight, but it should be embarrassing for the NBA and unfair to let him get away with it on 80 percent of his drives because it’s not basketball.

Adam Silver needs to do something about it, because refs ignoring his best player breaking the rules in this fashion is far worse than when they let Michael Jordan palm it and/or walk on every possession in the 1990s just because he was Michael. Especially if he’s playing against Joel Embiid with his orbital bone injury in the next round.

Embiid incidentally gets major points for toughness.

The Celtics felt they got screwed on the play at the end of Game 3 that gave Smart just two foul shots instead of three when he anticipated a foul coming and shot it even though he wasn’t in position to actually make it. It was a bogus miss called because it was a shot attempt. But not giving it was consistent with what the zebras called all year on similar plays. Still, heads up plays shouldn’t be penalized.

Having said that, would love hearing what Johnny Most would have to say about all this.

And given all the whining coming from Lopez, I’m sure Buck Nation has a list of their own complaints.

NBA 101 Answer: Shaq is the record holder by going 0 for 11 from the line vs. Seattle in 2000.

Surprised Steve Nash survived the carnage in Brooklyn. Especially with the blank expression on his face as things went downhill vs. Boston bringing to mind Peter Sellers playing Chance the gardener in the 1979 major motion picture Being There.

It is mystifying to me that coaches regularly use their only challenge on inconsequential plays early in games instead of waiting for a big moment at the end of a game. Like the blown call that gave Tatum his sixth foul with 2:50 left in a tight Game 4 vs. Brooklyn. Using it when he got his fifth made sense, but whoever is supposed to see the replay before calling for it blew it because JT clearly hit Seth Curry with his shoulder. And why in the name of Bailey Howell would a coach ever listen to any player? They never think they ever commit a foul. I know I didn’t and I fouled out of 11 games my last season in college.

For the record, the great Kyrie delivered again as Brooklyn was 11-19 in the games he played in 2021-22. If that’s worth the $246 million he’s expected to get as a free agent this summer, the economy’s inflation spiral is a lot worse than I thought.

The week that was

It was an eventful week with all sorts of things happening.

News Item: Pats Draft Crazy Again

As usual Bill Belichick created a huge hoo-ha with the way he conducted last week’s Patriots draft — most notably, after the usual two trades down, with his pick in the first round of guard Cole Strange. An appropriate name for a guy who went 29th overall when everyone else in the NFL universe had him a third-round-level player. They said it was because they thought he might have been gone at their next pick at 51. That statement is laughable for the following reasons. (1)Coach B had the stones to stay put at 15 last year after Chicago traded up to take Justin Fields at 11 leaving only Mac Jones (of the Big 5) on the board when they absolutely needed to get a QB and QB-needy Pittsburgh, Washington and New Orleans were still lurking out there. So somehow I don’t see the urgency to vault a guard from IAA two rounds ahead of where most had him rated as a third-round pick. (2) Even if they were realistically afraid he might be gone by 51, it’s not like Bill doesn’t have a history of moving around the board. For instance, in 2010 they got Rob Gronkowski in the second round at 42 after starting the day at 51, before going up to 44 and finally getting him at 42.

And instead of strangely reaching for Cole, they could have packaged the saved No. 1 pick with others needed to get into the A.J. Brown sweepstakes and used the second-round pick on Strange instead of doing what recent history says they can’t do, drafting a wideout in Baylor speedster Tyquan Thornton at 51. Then by taking Strange in Round II they fill the OL hole while getting the electric game-breaking Brown to help their young QB from Day 1, rather than waiting for a rookie to figure it out over his first two seasons.

News Item: Bloom Is Off The Rose

As Popeye the sailor used to say, that’s all I can stanz, I can’t stanz no more. That moment came when after pitching four perfect innings on Friday, Rich Hill got yanked by Sox manager Alex Cora when hitter 13 led off the fifth inning with a single. It’s the epitome of the Tampa Bay replica Chaim Bloom is turning the Sox into. And while I know TB has had success, I am now rooting for Chaim to fail and be fired. I know I’m a relic and it won’t change anything. But I hate seeing Cora turned into a spreadsheet puppet since his return. And that’s before Xander Bogaerts walks next winter in free agency (though John Henry will deserve blame for that too). Sorry, nothing personal, but I hate TB’s brand of baseball, so Chaim’s toast with David Long the baseball fan. BOOOOO.

News Item: C’s Cut Down the Nets

I don’t want to tell you I told you so, but I told you so. The Nets were not to be as feared, as almost everyone else on the planet (besides me) said they should be. While a bit better than expected, Brooklyn’s D could not contain the Boston O, particularly Jayson Tatum, who averaged 29.8 points per in the series, and the Celtics defense stifled almost everyone, even Kevin Durant,who had a miserable shooting series before getting 39 in Game 4. And Kyrie Irving did what I said he would — put up a 39-point wow game, deliver two chokes (10 and 16 points in Games 2 and 3), with a pedestrian 20-pointer (Game 4) to get him pounded by the critics as well, which we’ll have more on in a few weeks.

News Item: Piling on Durant

The piling on Durant began immediately after that embarrassing sweep, led by Charles Barkley’s “driving the bus” nonsense. Idiotic because (1) KD is right that in joining Houston late in his career in a vain attempt to finally win one himself, Barkley is hypocritical slamming Durant for joining Golden State in 2016. Then again it would be good for KD to understand that while entertaining, Chuck is almost always wrong about almost everything, so it’s best to ignore him. (2) When Barkley mentions Durant has not won a title since leaving GS, he neglects to mention neither have the Warriors since he left them. (3) Being the bus driver isn’t why KD struggled vs. Boston; credit their defensive game plan and execution for that. And he’s also hardly the first bus driver to string some bad playoff games together. How about Houston’s Robert Reid holding Larry Bird to shooting 11-38 when Larry scored 8, 8 and 12 points in Games 3, 4 and 5 in the 1981 Finals. Or how about none other than Chuck’s 12-8-8-points submission when the Rockets got swept by Utah in 1998?

News Item: Celtics Throw Up Game 1 Stinker

You can look at the Celtics’ horrid 101-89 Game 1 loss to Milwaukee two ways. That they immediately coughed up the home court advantage Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer gifted them by tanking the final game of the regular season. Or that it’s the playoffs and it’s rare for teams to run off long winning streaks because you’re always facing good teams. Either way, what was most troubling was the mental fog their top two scorers played in, with the most notable being Jaylen Brown. Hard to imagine anyone playing a more bumbling, worse game, because when he’s off he can be beyond-belief bad. The good news is plenty of teams have laid Game 1 eggs before coming back to win their series. Most notable was when the Celtics demolished the Lakers 148-114 in the Mother’s Day Massacre of 1985 before L.A. recovered to take Game 2 in Boston Garden on their way to winning in six, showing Sunday was just one game, that’s it.

At least so far.

Big draft blows tonight

Today is like Christmas for football personnel junkies, as Round 1 of the annual draft of college players goes off in Vegas tonight.

It’s the first of a three-day extravaganza that creates a lot of buzz around NFL Nation for mock drafts, potential trades and maneuvering around the board.

So as I sit here hoping Coach B makes the bold move I know he won’t — swing for the fences to get the home run-hitting wide receiver they need — here’s a series of thoughts buzzing in my head as Round 1 begins Thursday, April 28, at 8 p.m. in the east.

For a change there hasn’t been much rumble about QBs in this draft, the most discussed subject being the undersized hands of the guy at the top of the QB board, Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh.

It’s a stark contrast to last year, when the likely five first rounders were the catalyst for two major pre-draft trades, as they captured all the conversational oxygen in the room. That the last picked of those five, Mac Jones, had by far the best rookie year was a big story through the entire year, even as the Pats’ December fade helped Ja’Marr Chase deservedly sneak by Mac to be Rookie of the Year for his dramatic impact in Cincy.

Instead QB’s in the league already have dominated the pre-draft headlines. This included the Packers bowing to Aaron Rodgers’ bluff of wanting out of Green Bay to give him what he really wanted — being the highest-paid player in the NFL. Russell Wilson got his wish to get out as Seattle headed to a rebuild. Denver paid a king’s ransom to get him to end their playoff-less streak since Peyton Manning retired after 2015. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end as I hate when ungrateful quitters come out on top after walking out on teams that took a big chance on them at the start.

A similar price was paid to finally put an end to the Deshaun Watson saga in Houston and bring his enormous baggage with him to Cleveland. I’m hoping he hits rough seas too, both for his alleged sexual misconduct activities and so Cleveland Browns’ slimy, ends-justify-the-means owner Jimmy Haslam doesn’t benefit either.

That move sent Baker Mayfield into pout mode because he somehow can’t see why the Browns would want to start over at QB over committing ginormous money to a QB with a most uneven record.

Seattle and Carolina are rumored to be likely places to land. Not sure which is worse as Panthers Coach Matt Rhule looks to be a year away from the firing squad and Seattle puts him back in the same situation he was in when he got to Cleveland.

Big paydays also came to wide receivers in various ways: extensions (Stefon Diggs), free agency (Davante Adams to Vegas) and trade (Tyreek Hill to Miami, as their growing influence on the game in the 2020s becomes more evident by the year.

With both Diggs and now Hill in the AFC East, and the flush with draft capital Jets looking for a big play guy, those moves are why the Patriots need to get in the DK Metcalf and Deebo Samuel sweepstakes, as over the next five years to win in the East you’re going to have to outscore the other guy. Similar to Coach B deducing in 2007 he needed to bring in Randy Moss and Wes Welker as outscoring them would be the only way to beat Manning and the Colts. And with an evolving QB who could use the extra help and on his rookie contract it will never be more affordable than right now.

Anyone know the Vegas odds for Jacksonville taking the wrong guy with the top pick? Since they only fired Urban Meyer and not the GM who hired him, I’m betting it’s worth the investment to lay down a few bob on a blown pick.

Finally, something to bear in mind as the so-called draft insiders yack about measurables, intangibles and great value picks while gushing over every player taken as if they’ll be the second coming of Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice and/or Lawrence Taylor. It’s an inexact science where only about 25 percent turn out to be as good as they were bloviated about, and sometimes after thought 199th picks turn out to be GOATs, and first overalls like JaMarcus Russell can’t start for the local YMCA.

Exhibit A is Mike Mayock, a talking head who was considered the draft “guru” while analyzing drafts on TV before and after all the picks were made. That is until the crystal ball he was oh-so confident in magically became quite foggy when he had to do it for real as the personnel chief of the Raiders under the defrocked Jon Gruden.

The record is pretty mixed with 2019 picks Josh Jacobs in Round 2 and wideout Hunter Renfrow in Round 5 being the highlights. The lows were character misses on 2020 first-round picks Alabama wideout Henry Ruggs III and DB Damon Arnette. Ruggs is now sitting in jail with his career likely over, after a woman was killed when he crashed his car into hers while allegedly intoxicated and driving 150 MPH on the Vegas strip last October. While Arnette was released a short while after that when a video surfaced of him brandishing firearms a la Aaron Hernandez and making violent threats.

Evaluating all aspects of the talent package is a lot harder than the yackers make it out to be.

OK, Jaguars, you’re on the clock.

Pats on clock in 7 days

The NFL draft is one week away, so the Pats are now on the clock in deciding how they should proceed.

Given how many holes they have to fill, the question is what will they prioritize since they likely can’t get immediate help for all of them?

Last time we saw them they were getting blown out 47-17 by Buffalo in the playoffs when the D did not stop the Bills from scoring even once all day, and with the offense stifled most of the day as well, it’s fair to say both units need an infusion of talent.

However, since then they’ve lost their best defender as J.C. Jackson left for a giant free agent contract, along with two very reliable but on-the-back-nine linebackers in Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. On O they lost both starting guards though Michael Onwenu takes over one slot.

They did lure Malcolm Butler out of retirement to (hopefully) replace Jackson at DB, along with adding the latest Alabama import, Mack Wilson, and safety Jabrill Peppers as acquisitions on D. Of course since last we saw Butler was being mysteriously benched during the SB loss to the Eagles, the trade price for Wilson was just Portsmouth-loving LB disappointment Chase Winovich, and with Peppers coming off ACL surgery you wonder how much help they’ll provide.

Meanwhile, in between stupidly firing their coach Brian Flores and having an alleged NFL illegal plot to steal Tom Brady from Tampa Bay that was undone by Flores’ subsequent lawsuit, the Dolphins added RB Chase Edmonds, wideout Cedric Wilson and the electric Tyreek Hill to juice their offense, and Buffalo made wideout Stefon Diggs happy with a big extension and added edge rusher Von Miller to its already very good defense.

So it appears they’ve taken a step back in the AFC East as Coach B fiddles away with Rome burning.

Thus they need to come out of this draft (via picks or trades) as productively as last year in getting Mac Jones, Christian Barmore and all-name-teamer Rhamondre Stevenson.

The so-called experts tell us they need help on D at cornerback, a big run-stopper on the line and probably two mobile linebackers. On O, it’s a starting guard and a tackle for depth. I’ll add, even with the acquisition of the solid DeVante Parker, an A-level receiving target.

They’re not likely to get all that next weekend. So what should they do?

Prevailing wisdom says take the best available player regardless of position to improve wherever they can. But if they do that, it’ll likely get some improvement, but not make them great on either side of the ball.

To my way of thinking it’s better to have one dynamic unit than two mediocre ones because the dynamic one gives you a better chance to control the game than mediocre units do.

I’d focus the draft on just offense for these reasons, to get more out of their young QB and solid runners by putting better pieces around them.

In Year 1 without Josh McDaniels, it’s more likely Coach B can coach up the D better than they’ll be able to do on O.

In Butler, Jackson, Van Noy, Rob Ninkovich and others they’ve always been able to take undrafted free agents or guys off the scrap heap and find productive roles on defense more than on offense.

In Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins they’ve invested in three linebackers from the top three rounds the last two drafts, while red shirt LB Cameron McGrone supposedly only fell to Round 4 because of his late 2021 ACL surgery. So time to find out if they can play.

With offense the focus, my top priority is an A+-level receiver. They’ll be reluctant to do that. But just look at the difference Ja’Marr Chase made for worst-to-best Cincy as they went from scoring 311 points in 2020 to 463 after he arrived. Ditto for Stefon Diggs in Buffalo and look what Cooper Kupp means to the Rams. And to those who point to the acquisition of Parker, I’ll ask, if he was that good why did Miami need to get Hill? He’ll make the overall receiving better but he’s an injury-prone two.

How do they get that guy? Given their abysmal record for drafting receivers, they need to trade for one.

Like in 2007 when they used picks at the top of the draft to trade for Wes Welker (a 2) and Randy Moss (3). All that did was deliver 210 new catches, 2,600-plus receiving yards and 31 TD’s to turn Tom Brady into TOM BRADY and a defense-first team to offense-first that averaged 12 wins a year and five SB appearances over the next 12 years as the D went from in decline to downright awful before the arrival of Darrelle Revis in 2014.

They won’t get something that incredible this time, but that’s what they should do. Of course they’ll have to be willing to part with their top pick for sure and another high one (at least) preferably in the future.

I’m fine with either of the two biggest names rumored to be on the move in advance of big 2023 contract demands, DK Metcalf and Deebo Samuel. Patriots rarely do that, but Moss was at the top of the market and so was Gronk eventually, so their history shows it works. A trade now for either in the last year of their rookie contract makes them affordable now and with $29 million from Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor coming off the books after 2022, their big number extension goes into their slot.

Then with their second and third pick (if they still have them) go for O-line help unless they can trade picks for immediate help there as well. Then next if need be go all D.

There you have it. That’s my plan.

C’s earn playoff 2-seed

The NBA regular season is a wrap and the playoffs come your way starting Sunday for the Celtics, likely vs. Brooklyn, pending the result of Tuesday’s play-in game with Cleveland that happened after this column was filed.

Thanks to having Kevin Durant, most feel it will be the Nets. Which has a lot of people making a big deal about having to play them so early. But if they are as formidable as most think (besides me), sooner or later you usually see them, so who cares if it’s in Round 1, 2 or 3? Though admittedly it would’ve been preferable to have Rob Williams on board when/if he’s able to come back from knee surgery.

The sooner or later theory eluded Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer, however; he took the chicken’s way out by tanking on Sunday to set up a more favorable match-up with the fading Bulls, a move that could turn out to be a strategic blunder if they face the C’s in Round 2, as it gift-wrapped the second seed and home court advantage that came with it to his opponent. On the plus side, however, the chicken’s way out does eliminate the prospect of having to face both Boston and New Jersey, er, Brooklyn, because one will knock off the other. Of course it’s also bulletin board material, because it says chicken man Budenholzer thinks the Nets are gonna win, so they’ll get home court anyway.

So now Celtics Nation has another person to hate sports in the 2022 playoffs, which will (likely) be focused on dastardly Kyrie Irving in Round 1 and chicken man in Round 2 if they get that far. Though Cleveland upsetting NJ, er, Brooklyn would unravel that plan faster than the Brian Flores lawsuit vs. the NFL deep-sixed Tom Brady’s alleged plot to stab folks in Tampa Bay in the back via a QB coup to install himself as the guy under center in Miami.

So boo to Kyrie. Boo to the new NBA chicken man. And if true, boo especially to the increasingly duplicitous Brady. But I digress on that one.

With all that laid out, here are some more Celtics and non-Celtics playoff thoughts.

Bravo for Ime Udoka for going for the win on Sunday vs. Memphis to get home court in Round 2 over an easier Round 1 match-up. Then again he didn’t have much of a choice, ’cause if they tanked and Philly won (which they did) they would have fallen to the 4-seed. That would have meant a series vs. Toronto, where the allegedly unvaxxed Jaylen Brown would have missed all the games in Canada.

I’m taking Toronto over Philly, by the way, for two reasons. The Sixers’ valuable sixth man Matisse Thybulle is unvaxxed, so he can’t play north of the border. Plus while he whines more during games than anyone beside Bills coach Sean McDermott, Nick Nurse is a much better game coach than Doc Rivers, who has eight first-round knock-outs in 22 years.

I’ve also got Memphis coming out of the West, because I like their team D, which leads the NBA in steals and blocked shots, relentless offensive rebounding, and given his own unimpressive playoff history, I see Ja Morant winning head to head over Chris Paul.

Aside from the fact his head isn’t square, am I the only one who thinks Nikola Jokic is a dead ringer for Rocky Balboa’s nemesis Ivan Drago?

Joke of the Week: A priest walks into a bar — no, that’s not it. It was the talk show guy somewhere who asked after Kyrie’s recent 60-point game if he and KD were the greatest 1-2 punch in NBA history.

Cut to the laugh track.

Guess he missed KI not even being named to ESPN’s recent Top 75 Players List. On that list alone were Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, Stockton and Malone, Bird and McHale, West and Baylor, Magic and Kareem, Kareem and Oscar, Oscar and Jerry Lucas, Cousy and Russell, Havlicek and Cowens, LeBron and Dwayne Wade or AD, Wilt and his next-door neighbor, let alone Hal Greer or Billy Cunningham. Heck, he’s not even in KD’s best two 1-2 punches with Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook.

So yank that guy’s press pass because he’s a historical doofus and basketball nitwit.

In 2009 we heard KG would be back for the playoffs. Ditto in 2011 with Shaq and it was the same for Bill Walton in 1987. None made it back. So they have to carry on as if Lob it to Rob is not coming back until they see him in a game.

Also, no hero ball. This guy’s legs are his game, so they should err on the side of caution no matter what.

Here’s my pick for Round 1 depending on who the Celtics play.

Cleveland vs. Boston: Tougher than you think. I love Darius Garland and rookie Evan Mobley. But if their center Jared Allen’s broken finger isn’t OK to go, his loss is more damaging to them than Lob it to Rob is to Boston. C’s in five.

Brooklyn vs. Boston: KD is one of the few guys who can win a series on his own. So beware of him. Kyrie will do what he always does — have two games where most will say, “Wow, that guy is good.” Three more will be routine low in the 20’s games where he’ll get killed on D, and he’ll totally choke in two more. So the series comes down to this: Tatum has to play Durant even and Jaylen has to be better than Kyrie. I’ll bet on JB and the Celtics far superior team defense. C’s in six.

Likable Celtics cheerleader Brian Scalabrine has said several times of late, Tatum is a Top 10 player. But sorry, he can’t be considered that until he dominates in the playoffs.

So the chance to make that statement is at hand.


Celtics rolling toward playoffs

There is an old saying that goes, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure who said it first or why, but I do know the most recent team in sports it applies to is your Boston Celtics, a team that justifiably had everyone from Jamestown, R.I., to Presque Isle on their back through the first 10 weeks of the NBA season. All thanks to blowing one big lead after another in one lax effort after the next.

However, that was then and this is now. They’ve gone from 18-21 after blowing a 25-point lead in an excruciating loss to the Knicks on Jan. 6 to 49-30 following Sunday’s 42-point beatdown of Washington.

The 32-9 surge sends them into next week’s playoffs as the hottest team in the East and maybe the top seed in the conference.

The question is how did that happen, especially since it seemingly came from nowhere.

Before I get to that, first the mea culpa. Boy did I get it wrong saying in a blowtorch column right after the loss at MSG that they would be battling for the 10th playoff spot as this week arrived.

Though while I was wrong about that, I was right about what they needed most to solve their problems — a real point guard and better, more determined leadership from Jayson Tatum. Qualities that I’d given up he’d ever develop. Never saw anyone on the roster ever being a real point guard either. Finally I said Ime Udoka looked over his head.

So back to how it happened.

In order:

Point guard: Rarely does the light bulb go on for someone in their eighth season, but it has for Marcus Smart since mid-January. Now the first move is going below the three-point line to draw defenders to him, giving Tatum and Jaylen Brown better openings to shoot or drive. It also gives him 10-foot pull-up opportunities or lanes for shots at the rim or lobs to Rob. It’s been the key to the improvement.

Tatum’s maturity: Through the surge he’s been mostly sensational. Though after seeing him sulk his way through the second half of last week’s Miami loss after letting horrid officiating get his head, it’s not all there just yet. But he now looks so much more determined and physical in regularly taking it to the basket. The last piece needed is to better fight through the adversity like vs. Miami, because that’s what he’s going to see in the playoffs.

Shot selection: Mostly gone now are Tatum, Brown and especially Smart infuriatingly chucking up the first three that shows. Ditto for Tatum’s loved by him and absolutely despised by me Kobe-like isolation step back shot that takes everyone besides him out of the offense

Passing on all the ill-advised threes and destructive isolations has led to a greater overall patience to search out better shots through the shot clock. That’s improved field goal percentages on both twos and threes. But more importantly it’s led Tatum and Brown to attack the rim as the first option for the higher percentage attempts and more free throws that come at the rim. Both are now a threat to score 30 every night and this is why they’re so much harder to guard. Not to mention more fun to watch.

Passing: There are two kinds of passing. The first is programmed ball movement where guys automatically have places to send it to get ahead of defensive rotations and into open areas like weak side corner for a three. The quicker and more decisively it’s done the better because it’s where most open half-court shots come from. Everyone seems to be better at that now. But chief among them is Rob Williams in particular who’s become very adept at this. It’s the least talked about part of his improvement, and has a positive impact on the half-court offense.

The other kind is passing off the dribble during penetration, for drop-offs when double teamed, in transition, to cutters coming from the weak side or off picks and on lobs to Rob, which has become a major element in the half court offense and on the break. While there have always been flashes of this and Al Horford has always been solid here, Tatum and Smart have had a Cousy-esque transformation in their ability to get people wide open shots or lay-ups while on the move.

The Coach: One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made during my time writing this column was saying Udoka looks over his head as an NBA coach. Dead wrong. Turns out it was just part of the learning curve.

It’s obvious this team listens to him. Both the improved shot selection and especially the transformation of Smart’s offensive approach are coaching things. Ditto for their league-best team defense, which has been solid since Day 1. Something that makes them built more sturdily for the slower, more physical play in the playoffs.

Bottom line, he’s the biggest reason for the turnaround.

And while all this was going on, we also got the answer to the biggest question looming over the future of the franchise.

Can Tatum and Brown play together? This question was endlessly asked through the first 10 weeks. And I said in January it needed an answer. Though I added we’ll never really know until they play with a real point guard who gives them the ball where each can do something with it. With Smart now doing that, the answer is yes. Which is good, because at 24 and 25 they could be on their way to becoming the best 1-2 scoring punch in Celtics history. And yes I have heard the names Jones, Havlicek, Bird, McHale, Pierce, Walker and the rest.

Along with drastically improved play from the bench, that takes care of what happened. Next week we’ll preview the playoffs and talk about what Brad Stevens has done to change their immediate fortunes.

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