As the Celtics limped into the new calendar year, there were loud voices wondering if the two could thrive together. Now, as a new ball prepares to drop, it is nearly unanimous that the Celtics have the best tandem in the league.
Such is the byproduct of winning. And not only have Tatum and Brown improved as individual players, they’ve figured out together how to make Boston a legitimate title contender.
The Jays close out a wild calendar year on Thursday night by hosting the Clippers and their star pairing of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. As the Jays work to pull the Celtics out of a December funk, Thursday’s game is yet another chance to reassert themselves against another hyped duo that outplayed them earlier this month.
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Tatum and Brown are coming off a near 40/40 performance against the Houston Rockets. Brown poured in 39 points while Tatum added 38 as the Celtics won their third straight and rebuilt some of the momentum that was stolen on a trip out west.
With Boston’s star duo in the spotlight, let’s highlight four numbers that show just how much progress the Jays have made, particularly in calendar year 2022:
That’s Boston’s record when both Jays score at least 30 points in a game.
With six such instances this season alone, they recently accelerated past Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who were a combined 14-2 in such games. There’s a good chance that, by the end of the 2022-23 season, the Jays could quietly shuffle past the best scoring duos of the modern era, including Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant (33 instances of 30/30, 27-6 record) and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook (34, 23-11).
"It’s crazy. This time last year y’all wanted to trade either one of us, now you just said Mike and Scottie," said Tatum. "So we’re not as bad as you guys say we are but we’re not as good as Mike and Scottie, yet. We’re just two young guys that love to compete, love to try to help our team win every night, and just try to get better. But we gotta win. We gotta win when it counts most for it to really mean something."
The one in 17-1 came earlier this season when Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell and Caris LeVert each scored 40 points in an overtime win in Boston. There have been only 17 instances of the 40-40 club in NBA history. Which means that it takes a historically great duo performance to outlast the Jays in any game they produce 30 and 30.
The number of assists from Jay-to-Jay this season.
This may not sound like an exceptionally high number until you realize that the duo paired up for just 72 total assists during the 2021-22 campaign That means, with only a slight uptick in their assist output, the duo could potentially double up that number in the 2022-23 season.
Through 35 games, Brown has assisted on 25 Tatum makes after registering just 22 assists to Tatum all of last season. Tatum’s most common assist this season is to Brown and it’s not particularly close. Tatum has 32 helpers to Brown, including 11 rim finishes and 13 3-pointers. The next-closest teammate is Al Horford at 21 baskets assisted by Tatum.
Rough estimate at opposing defenses stopping a Brown/Tatum pick-and-roll.
OK, we’re exaggerating here. It only feels like every instance leads to points. And, given their talents, it still doesn’t feel like Tatum/Brown pick-and-rolls happen nearly as often as they should. But watch the chaos they produce when they do happen ...
Brown sets everything into motion with a beautiful bounce pass through two defenders as Tatum slips to the basket. Hit pause 3 seconds into that clip and you’ll notice all five Rockets defenders are within feet of either Tatum or Brown.
There are three wide-open shooters with Horford and Derrick White holding down the corners, and Marcus Smart alone at the top of the arc. Tatum has the choice of either finishing over one defender rushing to help -- and maybe drawing an and-one -- or kicking to any of the three shooters without a defender within 10 feet of them.
Tatum elected to zip the ball to Horford, who buried the shot as Boston started to separate from Houston at the end of the first half.
It doesn’t matter what combination is on the floor. With enough shooting, the Celtics become lethal in these instances. Let’s substitute Robert Williams III in place of White. Now you’ve got Williams III crashing hard on the weak side with potential for an easy lob. Shuffle Smart a little wider above the break and you’ve still got two wide-open shooters to choose from.
The point here is that good things happen when the Jays work together. It doesn’t even have to be a pick-and-roll. Let one Jay screen for the other and defenders are forced to decide whether to switch or let one of the Jays roam free. There is no good answer.
That is Boston’s net rating this season with both Jays on the floor.
It’s not exactly the eye-popping plus-14.5 that the duo posted last season as the No. 1 high-volume, two-man lineup (1,000-plus minutes) in the NBA. But a slow start suggests they might eventually shuffle closer to that lofty mark.
The Jays held an impossibly low minus-3.1 net rating through October. They’re at plus-9.9 since the start of November and, even with the team’s December slump, they’re at plus-9.7 for the final month of 2022.
As Williams III gets reacclimatized and if the Celtics stay near full health, it’s not outlandish to suggest the Tatum/Brown duo could see another bump in their total output. Boston’s defense is trending upward and the Celtics remains on a historic offensive pace despite spending multiple weeks of December as the worst offense in the NBA.
If the Celtics come even close this year to the level that they played at in the second half of last season, then Tatum and Brown’s metrics together will climb.
While the team has rarely had to operate without either of them on the floor (and mostly in lopsided games) the Celtics own a ghastly net rating of minus-21.9 in the 127 minutes both Jays are off the floor.
Watch Forsberg break down these numbers and more with co-host Amina Smith on "Celtics Post-Up" in the video below.