By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Remember when Jayson Tatum dunked on LeBron in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals? The Celtics lost that game, and the series - but all anyone could talk about was the rookie with the sky-high ceiling who dared to challenge the self-proclaimed "King." Shared on Twitter, memorialized on t-shirts, the moment was a hint that anything was possible...again.
Tatum's 30-point outburst against this year's Finals favorite in the Clippers - punctuated by an ankle-breaking, game-tying three over All-NBA talent Paul George - reapplied the pedal to the floor of Tatum's hype machine. The C's lost this early-season showdown, but one couldn't help but imagine Tatum launching similar daggers into May and June for years to come.
Tatum's aggression and dedication to a contemporary offensive approach is pushing him to the next level following a stagnant second year. The results aren't there every night, and some elements to his game could use polish (such as finishing at the rim, though he was 6-for-7 in the paint on Wednesday night). But the individual offseason improvements by Boston's high end players, like Tatum, suggest a team that's rounding into a legitimate Eastern Conference threat.
We've marveled at Marcus Smart's progression over the last two seasons, with a onetime consensus offensive liability showing the confidence and skill to complement his disruptive defense with valuable contributions as a shooter.
His 11.2 field goal attempts per game this season are a career high, with the majority of those coming from downtown. That's fine, as long as he's in the neighborhood of the 36 percent he shot from there last year. It gives the Celtics the scoring depth they need with Gordon Hayward out and a bench stocked with young players.
And yet, as I noted with Chris Gasper and Matt McCarthy last weekend, with Smart in the starting lineup, you don't want him ripping shots out of the hands of your primary scorers.
His persistence and confidence resulted in some key second half buckets against the Clippers, to say nothing of his defensive exploits against Kawhi Leonard. But we saw way too much of his trademark bravado in the fourth quarter. The aforementioned Tatum attempted just one shot in the frame, while Smart fired seven. He went 1-for-11 from deep in the contest. At some point, you have to cede the spotlight.
Conspicuous in his Absence
Enes Kanter came out cooking Wednesday night in a first half defined by defense. The center posted six points (on 3-for-5 shooting) and five rebounds in five minutes of first quarter play. He’d return in a reserve capacity in the second quarter but logged just three minutes the entire second half.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens went with Grant Williams for 20 minutes (the most he'd logged in three weeks). The rookie scored just three points and grabbed two rebounds, with no thunderous blocks, but Stevens has acknowledged his contributions go beyond the box store. The coach left his more traditional bigs on the bench against a team lacking a traditional post presence other than Ivica Zubac.
This also meant sophomore Robert Williams III totaled just nine minutes.
Kanter’s status on the roster is a curious one. He came in a polished post scorer and volume rebounder whose main knock has always been his defense (think Greg Monroe). Stevens prefers big men with versatile defensive profiles. While the Turk has looked decent in green, he hasn’t had much opportunity to prove his worth after missing seven of the team’s first eight contests due to injury.
While you’d think the C’s will need Kanter against teams with trees, the C’s have been able to navigate those matchups thus far with other personnel. It's early, but it's worth keeping an eye on Kanter's role.
Unless you're a hardcore student of the overseas game, navigating the European import market can be confusing. Should you buy the hype? Is that dunk-filled highlight reel on YouTube legit, or are all of those defenders six feet tall?
Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker - two veterans of European play - have been key to the Celtics' early success.
Theis has been Boston's healthiest, most consistent big man in the early going, an assessment punctuated by the eight points, 14 rebounds, six assists and three steals he posted Wednesday night.
Wanamaker's role has grown in the absence of Hayward, logging 56 minutes over the last two games, with productive totals of 24 points, 11 assists and four steals.
Credit Danny Ainge for hitting on the transactions. Credit Theis and Wanamaker for their perseverance and ability to cash in when the opportunity presents itself.