NEW YORK — After a record-setting night for the Celtics offense, Jayson Tatum and Sam Hauser went back and forth over a most important matter: Hauser’s 3-point celebrations.
Though Hauser said he’s not big on them most of the time, he apparently broke the character once on Saturday night. After one of his four first-half 3-point makes, he cracked up Tatum with an over-the-top reaction. Following a quick postgame lift, Tatum asked Hauser to repeat what he had said after the shot.
“I said, ‘Boom, motherf—-r,’” Hauser replied.
He might need to find a new catchphrase. Tatum suggested that one doesn’t fit Hauser’s personality. Either way, the moment gave the two teammates plenty of laughs after a 133-118 win against the Knicks. And, hey, the line might even make sense as a motto for the Celtics, who continued a red-hot shooting start to the season with a franchise-record 27 3-pointers. All nine Boston players who appeared in the game drilled at least one triple, including Tatum, Hauser and Jaylen Brown, who combined for 17 makes. Early in this young season, the Celtics have used their abundance of shooters to stretch opposing defenses to their breaking point.
“I think that’s the thing with our team, right?” said Joe Mazzulla. “Because of our spacing we can get a really good look the majority of the time.”
At their best, that’s how the Celtics have played. After beating their previous record of 25 3-point makes with a 27-for-51 performance from long range, they top the NBA with an average of 16 3-point makes per game. Known more last season for their big, physical defense, they left Saturday night in a virtual tie with the Mavericks for the league lead in offensive efficiency. Lately, the second unit has charged some powerful runs thanks partly to Hauser’s emergence as another knockdown threat. The second-year pro, who only played 158 total minutes as a rookie, has made 17 of 31 3-point attempts so far this season (54.8 percent) while earning a bigger role. Mazzulla had a simple explanation for what Hauser has done to receive more minutes over the past couple of games.
“Shoot 3s,” Mazzulla said.
The coach stopped there for a second before eventually expanding on his reasoning.
“No, listen, he just plays the right way,” Mazzulla said. “He plays the right way, he knows how to play off the other guys, he can read defenses, he puts a lot of pressure on the defense. So it really helps our spacing. And he’s continuing to work at getting better at his defense.”
The Celtics have long relied on Tatum and Brown to give the nets a workout. The supporting cast around those two hasn’t always been filled with sharpshooters, but the team now boasts a second unit filled with outside threats. Lately, Mazzulla has turned up the offense by unleashing lineups with Tatum and three bench shooters: Hauser, Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams. Over 46 minutes with those four players on the court, the Celtics’ offense has walloped teams to the tune of 131.9 points per 100 possessions. Mazzulla rode that quartet to a huge run against Chicago on Friday night, then went back to it late in the first quarter against New York. The Celtics, who were tied 22-22 when those first players appeared at the same time, went on a 19-7 run over the next 4:31. Hauser made three of his five 3-pointers during the spurt.
“Sam is lights out,” said Jaylen Brown. “You can’t leave him. We’re looking for him. Once he hit a couple, we’re looking for him, and Sam is always ready. He works hard, and he’s developing a nice role for himself in this league.”
The formula for those Tatum plus bench groups is obvious. Though they have only played together for a small sample size so far, their scoring success should be at least somewhat sustainable. Williams and Hauser are both knockdown shooters. Tatum is one of the league’s most well-rounded offensive players. Brogdon has had no trouble getting to the paint early this season, especially with all of those threats around him. To this stage of the season, the mix has helped to produce some of the Celtics’ best stretches. Tatum has noticed the increased spacing on the court.
“Just because (in) that group we’ve got two primary ball-handlers (surrounded by) Sam and Grant,” Tatum said. “They’re either gonna shoot it or pass it. I’m not saying they can’t dribble but I think it just speeds things up. Those guys are great moving the ball, slipping out of screens, just finding the right spacing out there.”
How efficacy has the Celtics bench scored the ball? The team’s second-unit players have shot a combined 52.3 percent from the field, including 49 percent from 3-point range. Grant Williams, at 53.8 percent, is positioned directly behind Hauser in third place in NBA 3-point shooting percentage. Brogdon has hit a respectable 37.9 percent from deep while giving the Celtics a consistent driving threat. When he’s on the court, the offense has often run through him, leaving him with a greater usage rate than he had last season in Indiana. That’s a surprise because the Celtics have far more talent than that Pacers team did, but Mazzulla has put the ball in Brogdon’s hands from the start. He has benefited from the shooters around him and vice versa.
No other Celtics player has shot like Hauser so far. Though still just nine games into the regular season, the early returns suggest he has had a significant impact opening up the Boston offense. The Celtics have blasted defenses during his minutes, scoring 127.9 points per 100 possessions. Hauser and Boston’s best off-the-dribble creators have found an obvious synergy.
“He spreads the floor,” said Marcus Smart. “When you’ve got a knockdown shooter over there, it’s tough. It’s tough for you to help off somebody like him and try to help on Jayson and try to help on Jaylen and those guys and Malcolm and me coming down the lane. It just makes it that much easier for us. And then if they do stop us, you’ve got a guy that you know is going to knock it down. It really keeps the defenses honest.”
Though their offense has been sharp so far, the Celtics must be dreaming about how dangerous they will be once Robert Williams returns. He said he has been “stepping it up” in workouts after returning to on-court work a couple of weeks ago. Williams said he is dunking again, feels good and has not experienced any setbacks. workouts, he said he can do “really anything” physically.
“They just try to hold me (back from) being a little too explosive sometimes, take my time with it,” Williams said. “But pick-and-rolls, running the court, really doing a lot.”
In one sign of how far he has progressed, Williams joined the Celtics on their road trip instead of staying back in Boston. In their own way, other Celtics players showed him how much they have missed his presence in the locker room. As he started chatting with a group of reporters in front of Tatum’s locker, Tatum piped up that Williams needed to take his conversation somewhere else. And when Williams said his Celtics teammates need him, just like he needs them, Smart also gave Williams a hard time.
“Nobody needs you, Rob,” Smart called over.
The Celtics were just kidding. They know how much they need Williams. He shifts their energy on both ends of the court. Their defense hasn’t been nearly the same without him, but their offense has boomed despite his absence.
“Our guys are getting comfortable with the fact that when we run good offense and we have good spacing and we read the defense we’re going to get a great look,” said Mazzulla. “When you’re shooting that volume there’s going to be some tough ones, but for the most part I think our guys do a great job of shooting the right ones.”
(Photo: Brian Fluharty/USA Today)