Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, NBA

The Long Two: Klay Thompson returns while Boston Celtics search for offense

After a 941-day absence, Klay Thompson returned to the NBA in a way only he could. Meanwhile, the Boston Celtics are struggling to find an offensive rhythm.

Klay Thompson made his NBA return in a way only Klay Thompson could: with a quick trigger and absolutely no conscience. Given his fiery competitiveness and stone-cold confidence, why should we have expected anything else?

Seconds into his first NBA game since June 2019, Thompson drove the lane and converted a tough floater, despite the play being designed for Steph Curry to shoot. He proceeded to throw down a thunderous driving dunk, drain a series of off-the-dribble jumpers, splash a timeout-inducing transition 3, and play with the same unreserved confidence that, prior to two traumatic leg injuries, made him one of the most lethal shooters in NBA history.

But it was a subtler, more collaborative sequence that best encapsulated what Thompson’s return means for the Warriors — and for the rest of the NBA. After inbounding the ball to Otto Porter in the second quarter, Thompson cut back to the middle of the floor as if to receive a dribble-handoff.

But the threat of a career 42 percent 3-point shooter rounding a screen with room to fire — even after a 941-day absence from the NBA — was enough to pull both his man (Cedi Osman) and Porter’s (Lauri Markkanen) toward him. That allowed Porter to fake the handoff, create a 4-on-3 advantage and find Jordan Poole for a corner 3 off of a weak-side hammer screen. A wide-open jumper, created in part by a shooter who didn’t need to touch the ball to inflict damage:

We’re used to seeing plays like that from Curry, who pulls defenders toward him like a magnet in a pile of paper clips (he set up an open layup earlier in the half off of a similar action). But Thompson possesses a similar gravity, especially without the ball, and his reunion with Curry once again gives Golden State multiple players who create open looks for teammates with the threat of their shot.

Shooters of that caliber put constant pressure on defenses, tugging at seams until the fabric unravels and someone ends up with a clean shot. Having two such players makes it almost impossible for an opponent to cover all of its bases. As if it weren’t difficult enough to chase Curry as he constantly whirled around the court, opponents must now keep track of another, almost equally dangerous shooter moving with similar pace and guile. And, because neither Thompson nor Curry needs the ball to put pressure on a defense, each can have a huge offensive impact without mitigating the other’s.

Thompson must continue progressing before he’s that kind of nuclear threat again. While his first two games were decidedly positive signs, they also revealed areas in which Thompson still isn’t quite up to speed. He (understandably) hunted shots quite aggressively, which interrupted Golden State’s usual offensive flow, and he clearly still needs to get his legs and shooting rhythm back (Draymond Green getting healthy will also help ease Thompson back into a groove). The Warriors will smooth these things out over time as Thompson meshes with his teammates and Steve Kerr figures out how to balance an even deeper rotation.

On the whole, Thompson has played as well as could have been reasonably expected after so much time off, showing most every indicator of fitness and confidence by creating space off the dribble, stepping into catch-and-shoot 3s on-balance, holding his own on defense, exploding off of one foot and, most importantly, looking confident in every move.

It can be scary to trust your body to perform tasks it hasn’t done in over two-and-a-half years; the possibility of failure or re-injury can loom in one’s mind for a while, and putting that hesitance to rest is often the last step in an athlete’s recovery process. Thompson appears to have put any doubts — as well as the anguish of not being on the court — behind him, and can now focus solely on what lies ahead.

The Boston Celtics’ offense is stuck in neutral

Few teams have prompted more consternation from fans and media this season than the Boston Celtics, who sit on the fringes of the Eastern Conference play-in picture midway through a season for which they surely had higher aspirations. Despite a top-five defense and the presence of two borderline All Stars, the Celtics are a middling 21-21 thanks to a sputtering offense and fog of bad vibes hanging over their season. Boston has scored just 109 points per 100 possessions this season and, worst of all, failed to establish any kind of chemistry or cohesive scheme around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

It’s not altogether surprising that a team without a high-end creator or deadeye shooter ranks 23rd in the NBA in offensive efficiency, but it’s the way the Celtics haphazardly moves through their offense that makes watching them feel so arduous. The best attacks in the NBA create advantages and build upon them until opponents can no longer keep up. Rarely does that happen in Boston’s offense, which features players taking turns trying to score rather than working collectively to produce a good shot.

The Celtics seem to pass the ball more as the result of failed attempts to score than as preemptive moves designed to compromise the defense. Actions don’t flow into one another so much as each one runs its course before either producing a shot or begrudgingly moving on to the next player while teammates stand around watching.

An offense built around shot creators like Brown and Tatum is, to some extent, going to be reliant on making tough shots. Both players like to create space off the dribble and wield size or quickness advantages over their defenders, and each can create separation on the perimeter almost at will.

But as good as Brown and Tatum are as individual creators, they’re not so dominant as to drive efficient offense with their shot-making or draw extra defensive attention in ways that open up opportunities for others. Both players get to the rim at only an average rate — which prevents them from routinely collapsing the defense — and neither is a particularly adept passer — which prevents them from finding open teammates when they do attract help. Tatum in particular tends to settle for needlessly difficult jumpers when better options are available, while Brown’s attempt to stretch himself on offense often reads as overreaching.

In theory, Boston could overcome its stars’ offensive limitations with crisp ball and player movement and rapid decision-making, but lacks the requisite commitment to moving the ball and a primary creator who can initiate those collaborative sequences. Tatum and Brown can make basic drop-off passes, kickouts and pick-and-roll reads, but both players are ultimately wired to score and don’t apply sufficient pressure to defenses with their passing.

Al Horford and Marcus Smart are clever connective passers, but that brand of playmaking has less value when defenses are never pulled out of position. Center Robert Williams will occasionally facilitate from the high post but isn’t a reliable offensive hub, while Dennis Schroder is one of the more myopic, scoring-focused point guards in the NBA.

Part of Boston’s struggles are due simply to bad luck on jumpshots. Horford, Smart and most every other rotation player are shooting 30 percent or worse from 3, while Tatum has struggled to find his touch from virtually anywhere on the floor. As a team, the Celtics are shooting a ghastly 31.5 percent on non-corner 3s and just 34 percent overall from distance. Those marks should improve, though even above-average 3-point shooting would still leave Boston with systemic offensive flaws.

The Celtics take only 29 percent of their shots at the rim — the fourth-lowest mark in the NBA — and unlike other rim-averse teams like Phoenix and Dallas, don’t have good enough shooters to recoup those points from other parts of the floor. Their offense features too much one-on-one creation and too little player movement, and perhaps most concerningly, has been less efficient when Tatum and Brown share the floor than when either plays apart.

And yet, the idea of trading Brown or Tatum likely wouldn’t address the heart of the issue. Two-way wings who can create offense and guard multiple positions on defense are the kinds of players NBA teams often spend years trying to acquire; Boston has two of them, each under the age of 26 and under contract through at least the 2024 season. Acquiring a capable table-setting point guard to play alongside that duo makes more sense, for now, than splitting it up. The organization hasn’t always been consistent in how it has tried to build around those young stars, and perhaps the tradeoff of their supreme flexibility is the absence of a clear vision for how to build around them.

Clearly, the current iteration of the Celtics is not the right construction. Boston may well hold onto Brown or Tatum, but it seems likely that this team will look different after February’s trade deadline. There are undoubtedly better days ahead for the Celtics, who should remain one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses as they try to figure out the other end of the floor. But with over half the season already gone by, the Celtics have plenty of issues to address and increasingly little time to solve them.

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