Boston Celtics players have made no secret about their focus on getting back to the NBA Finals and taking what they see as the next logical step: winning it all.
Saturday night's game at Golden State—the team that defeated the Celtics in the 2022 Finals—will be a good litmus test to see if they can continue trending in that direction.
Dethroning the champion Warriors, or whoever emerges from the West, won't be easy. But Boston has improved its chances for success with a motion-filled, space-creating offense that is giving the rest of the league fits in this still-young season.
Here's what you need to know about this offense:
Jayson Tatum is a front-runner for league MVP in large part because he scores at a high level while making sure his teammates are major contributors, too. It is also fueled by a deeper-than-usual bench led by Malcolm Brogdon.
Above all else, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla has put his imprint on what they do, tapping into his multisport background and placing an increased emphasis on space, which have both opened the floor and also created opportunities to build off last season's success as they head into their Finals rematch against the Warriors.
Spacing. Spacing. Spacing.
Mazzulla is a man of many interests, one of which includes soccer. As a high school standout in fútbol and a lifelong fan of the game, he has a tremendous appreciation for the sport's emphasis on ball movement and crisp passing designed to create better opportunities to score.
And we're seeing that appreciation manifest itself on a regular basis with the Celtics.
"Spacing is really important to what we do, in everything we do," Boston's Derrick White told Bleacher Report earlier this season. "It's definitely something that's emphasized a lot this season."
It's no surprise that prioritizing this facet of the game would create a better-looking offense, which was middle-of-the-pack most of last season. But what the Celtics have done with Mazzulla running the show goes far beyond your run-of-the-mill upgrade.
Boston's improved spacing has been the foundation for what has been perhaps the most efficient offense in NBA history.
The Celtics' effective field goal percentage is 58.9, which would better the current NBA record of 57.5 set by the Brooklyn Nets during the 2020-21 season. Boston also has a true shooting percentage of 62.6, slightly better than the NBA record (61.0) set by the 2021 Nets club.
Boston also remains within striking distance of a new NBA record for three-pointers made per game. They average 16.6 per game, just behind the NBA record of 16.7 set by the Utah Jazz in 2021.
So if their explosive offense is all about spacing, which every team in the league talks about, why aren't other teams enjoying unprecedented success?
"The players," an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "It's not that they have the best players in the NBA, per se. But they do have the best fit of players in the game right now."
The Brogdon Factor
The Boston Celtics knew they were getting a good player—albeit an injury-riddled one in recent years—when they acquired Brogdon this past summer. The veteran guard was the centerpiece of a six-player trade that sent Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas, Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan and a 2023 first-round pick to Indiana.
Brogdon and his 14.0 points per game off the bench have helped, but his ability to attack defenses off the dribble has been a key factor in Boston's offensive ascension. He leads the team with 11.2 drives per game, along with 5.3 passes and 1.6 assists when going to the basket, which are also tops on the roster.
But it's what Brogdon and his teammates aren't doing that has allowed Boston to score like the basket is their own ocean, and we all got a beachfront property to watch the show.
Boston has kept its turnovers per game relatively the same despite the league average jump from 13.8 per game to 14.9 this year.
When it comes to drives, Boston only gives the ball up 2.6 times per game for a turnover rate of 5.5 percent, which ranks third and first in the NBA, respectively. That's also a notable improvement compared to last season when they ranked 20th in the league in both categories (3.2, 7.0 percent).
"My job is to really do whatever I have to do to help us when I'm out there," Brogdon told Bleacher Report. "Sometimes it's to score; sometimes it's to pass. But it's always about making the right basketball decision which is my focus."
That factors into the team's spacing, creating plenty of open or lightly contested shot attempts. And the Celtics, more often than not this season, have been able to capitalize.
Boston has taken 564 field-goal attempts this season with shooters having at least six feet of space, which ranks fifth in the NBA. Only Denver (48.8 percent) has converted a higher rate of wide-open opportunities than Boston (46.6) this season.
Having so many open looks is a far cry from where the Celtics offense was last season when they ranked 20th in total open field-goal attempts with at least six feet of space between the shooter and defender. Boston's 41.7 field goal percentage when taking those shots ranked 17th in the league.
Tatum's MVP Emergence
No Celtic has benefited from the team's improved spacing more than Tatum. The 24-year-old three-time All-Star is on the short list of MVP candidates thus far this season, and while the individual stats tell the tale (30.5 points per game), his league-best plus/minus of plus-245 reveals his impact beyond the box score.
Teammates have long been impressed with Tatum's skills. But this season, they have noticed a more vocal, locked-in leader.
"He's just so talented," said Marcus Smart. "He's figuring out how best to help this team, how to lead. He's a little more vocal now, which is good for us."
You'll often find him directing players to certain spots to stress defenses. It'll likely lead to an easy score for himself. Or it may wind up being one of the career-high 4.4 assists per game he's averaging on the year.
And then there's the Tatum fans never see in practice, often a voice of encouragement to his teammates.
Derrick White, for instance, has been among the biggest revelations for the Celtics this season. His shooting has taken a major step in the right direction. After hitting 34.0 percent of his three-point attempts over the first five years of his career, White is knocking down 42.7 percent of his deep shots.
The improved marksmanship was aided by extra time this past summer working on shot mechanics. But White has also benefited from having Tatum in his ear, repeatedly telling him to keep firing when teams are willing to give up perimeter shots.
"It's great when your best scorer is telling you you need to shoot more," said White, whose plus/minus of plus-188 is second only to Tatum in the NBA this season. "He's at a point where he can do that and knows that the ball is going to come back to him, and he'll still be able to score like he's used to."
In doing so, Tatum is the face of not only the franchise but also one of the most efficient offenses in league history.
This has been a major factor in the Celtics looking like front-runners to bring home what would be an NBA-record 18th championship by next June.