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Through the first quarter-and-a-half of action in the Boston Celtics’ Monday night win over the New York Knicks, the shots weren’t falling. Sam Hauser jumped out to a 3-of-4 start from distance, but outside of him, the Celtics shot 2-for-12 to open the game.
Boston’s offense process looked good. They were moving the ball, hitting their spots, and generating open looks. However, a bad result can lead to hanging heads, especially when the approach is sound.
But in head coach Joe Mazzulla’s mind, the threes weren’t the issue.
“Can I ask you a question?” Mazzulla said when asked about the cold shooting start. “Do you know how any missed layups we had in the first half? How come no one notices those? We had four missed layups for shots at the other end. I thought we played with great balance, and I think a missed layup can hurt you more than a missed three because it’s usually a five-on-four situation.”
Derrick White missed two, Kristaps Porzingis missed one, and Jaylen Brown did as well. For the Celtics, those missed opportunities led to clean looks for the Knicks on the other end of the court.
“I mean, if I could come up with another shot besides a three or a layup, I’ll do it,” Mazzulla said with a laugh. “You can’t kick it in. I mean, we couldn’t throw it in the ocean.”
Missing layups may be more costly on the court, but NBA players are confident in their ability to make shots at the rim. Missing a bunch of threes, on the other hand, could lead to hesitation.
Jayson Tatum started the game 0-for-6 from distance, but that didn’t slow him down.
“You put the work in,” Tatum said of his confidence level to keep shooting. “I’ve played enough games, had enough tough shooting nights. I mean, Game 6 last year was the prime example against Philly. I couldn’t hit a shot.
“But all good really, really good scorers know it just takes one to change your momentum, change how you feel about yourself shooting the ball. And once you see one go in you just feel a lot better about yourself.”
His cold start quickly turned into a red-hot scoring night, as he shot 5-of-6 from deep following his 0-of-6 opening. Tatum finished the night with 35 points on 13-of-23 shooting, and the interlude between his three-point slump and three-point barrage was full of new-look offense.
Tatum started the game 3-of-3 from the field, and then he took the ball beyond the arc.
Nothing. Three misses in a row from distance.
After three straight missed triples, he took the ball back inside. Tatum posted up, got in deep, and sunk a tough and-one just inside the paint.
Then he went back out behind the arc.
Nothing once again.
He followed that up with a dunk in transition and another post-up against Hart from which he nailed a turnaround jumper.
Then, after a few more misses, Tatum finally nailed a three at the 4:19 mark of the third quarter. From there, the floodgates were open. He shot 4-of-5 from deep the rest of the game and made his last four attempts.
Despite a rough stretch from deep, Tatum was able to find a rhythm by getting inside and working the post, something he’s been collaborating with assistant coach Sam Cassell on. And he’s not the only player getting to those spots.
“I think this year, what we have that we didn’t last year is we go to our post-up,” Mazzulla explained. “That kind of settles us down a little bit. It gets to a different spacing. It allows guys to give them a comfort level, and it helps us get to the free throw line a little bit. They beat us at the free-throw line.
“So I think when you’re going through those [cold spells], it’s something that we didn’t go to as much last year. This year, it’s like, ‘Okay when you want to settle it down, can we get JB JT Jrue into a post situation to create something? But you got to make the shot at some point.”
The Celtics shot 7-of-19 from three in the first half. A respectable 36.8%. But they were getting clean looks. And with a little work inside, they transferred their interior dominance to the outside.
In the second half, they went 12-of-24 from distance. A healthy process is the key to a successful offense, but having multiple spots to attack helps smooth out the kinks when shots aren’t falling. For the Celtics, the post-up is their newest weapon.