Celtics Offense 101: Back To Basics

May 6, 2012; Boston, MA USA; Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (5) celebrates with small forward Paul Pierce (34) and point guard Rajon Rondo (9) in the first quarter of game four in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

There's been a lot of talk about the offense since the Celtics dropped Game 2. Some credit is due to the Sixers; they were the third best defensive team in the regular season in terms of points per game (89.4) and are putting up even better numbers in the playoffs (84.9). Part of it is that the Celtics are a jump-shooting team and jump-shooting teams can get streaky. Last night's second and third quarters notwithstanding, Boston is shooting at almost an identical clip in the regular and post-season. From 10-15 feet, the Celtics averaged 3.6 makes to 8.8 attempts in the regular season and 3.75 makes to 8.88 attempts in the playoffs. From 16-23 feet, the Celtics averaged 9.8 makes to 23.7 attempts in the regular season and 9.75 makes to 24.38 attempts in the playoffs. It's scary how identical those numbers are. And of course, there are the injuries. Pierce's sprained MCL has robbed him of his explosiveness and Ray's bone spurs have him shooting 61% from the free throw line. And can you imagine this team with Jeff Green, Jermaine O'Neal, and Chris Wilcox right now?

But even with all these obstacles, the Celtics are winning, can continue to win, and raise #18. Doc's a great X's and O's guy and he's masterful drawing up plays out of timeouts to find the right shot for the right guy, but not every play can be perfectly diagrammed and executed. There are about 90 possessions in a game and basketball is a free-flowing sport where nothing can really be scripted, but sometimes, you just have to simplify. Basketball is just one giant game of Choose Your Own Adventure: there's usually two different paths and each has their own consequences. If you cut off someone's lane to the basket, they can pull up for a jumper. If you try and go over a screen, you might get caught and they can drive right past you. With the Celtics, their offense has bogged down at times and sometimes, in key situations. It's as if they forget that they're one of the most talented teams in the league and no matter the scheme, they'll be able to attack any defense. Boston is equipped to deal with either The Lady or The Tiger.

For what its worth, this is what seems to be working right now (and frankly, for the last five years):

Start the possession with a 1-4 PnR on the weak side. According to MySynergySports.com, the Celtics rank 2nd in the playoffs scoring efficiently with the pick-and-roll and it makes up 17.2% off their plays. With Avery or Ray camped out in the corner, I like the pick-and-roll action between Rondo and Bass to jump start the half court offense for three reasons:

  1. It puts the ball in our most dynamic player's hands. This seems like a simple point, but there are times when Rondo (and/or Doc) defer to Pierce to initiate the offense. With Pierce a little gimpy, he hasn't been as good with the ball in his hands. They've been trapping him in picks and that's lead to a lot of turnovers and transition.
  2. Some fans are clamoring to bench Brandon Bass and I could not disagree with this more. Although his shooting is a little down (38.5% in the post-season vs. 48% in the regular season from 16-23 feet), he's still an integral part of the offense. His mid-range jumper forces his man (Elton Brand) to not cheat in the paint and honor his shot. Brand isn't the most intimidating help defender, but he's a decent shot blocker and good rebounder.
  3. Making Rondo the focal point of the offense engages him right off the bat. He's faced some criticism from fans accusing him of not being aggressive for all 48 minutes. With a 1-3 PnR less of an option because of Pierce's knee, Rondo has to be the primary playmaker in transition and the half court.
With Rondo now in space, he can either choose to penetrate, find Bass, or shoot that free throw line extended J. Some people cringe at the idea of Rajon shooting that shot, but it's something that he's now comfortable with. In years past, he'd hesitate and throw up an out-of-rhythm brick. To a lot of fans, I feel like his jumper are like poker hands: you dismiss the big ones you win on but remember the ones you lose with. Let's not forget how deadly Rondo was in Game 1 against the Sixers or Game 4 with the Hawks. If he's open, he needs to take it.

If he chooses to drive, this is where Rondo thrives and things get interesting. In that weak side corner, Avery or Ray is there to help. The great thing is that the corner three has become a sweet spot for both of them. We know all about Ray from that distance, but even Avery is has started clicking. He had been cold in the playoffs, but after hitting two in Game 2, it looks like he's returning to the same regular season form where he shot 40.8% from beyond the 3-point line.

If Evan Turner or Lou Williams play up to prevent that shot, they can effectively cut to the basket and Rondo will find them. What I love about Ray is that just as Avery has torn a page out of his book with that corner 3-pointer, Ray's starting to play off the ball like Avery and finding easy looks at the rim. In Game 2, the Sixers overplayed his jumper and twice, Ray cut back door for an easy lay up. In Game 2, he went to the rim 7 times. That equals his attempts from all previous five games. That's a great sign that maybe his ankle is feeling a little better and more importantly, his game is expanding from being a spot up shooter and floor spacer.

What's not working are the multiple screens to free up Ray for a jumper. They work like a charm in dead ball situations but in the flow of the game, they're momentum killers. I'm not sure if Ray's getting "less open" because we're missing another great pick setter in addition to Garnett (see the departures of Big Baby and Perk) or Ray has loss some confidence, but when he's catching that pass off the down screen, he's not pulling the trigger and getting trapped. This has two very bad consequences. First of all, it turns Rondo from a dual threat running quarterback to a one-dimensional pocket QB. The only saving grace is that Doc seems to be running these sets more often when Keyon's running the point and when Ray receives the ball, he's not even looking for the shot and immediately putting it on the floor and taking it to the hoop.

Let's not forget about KG and The Captain. As Rondo penetrates, defenses collapse. If he can find Pierce, odds are, Iguodala would have laid off him a little. I like the idea of PP catching the ball while the defense reacts because optimally, he's getting the ball in motion. With his knee, he's having difficulty beating guys off the dribble one-on-one, but if he catches on the run, he's strong enough to attack the paint, finish, or draw a foul. Iggy has done a great job limiting Pierce, but I doubt he'd be as successful if the Pierce train had a head of steam rather than starting and stalling in neutral. MCL sprains limit your horizontal movement and without that side-to-side ability, Pierce can't access his entire bag of tricks. It doesn't sound like Pierce's knee will be fully healthy until next season or at least extended rest between series (Go Pacers!), so this might be the best way to get Pierce going and we need him to get going. Outside of the blowout win against the Hawks, Pierce has gone to the line at least 8 times in all the Celtics' wins, and for a shooter struggling with his shot, hitting a couple of free throws is a great way to get Pierce his groove back. Here's a hard stat to swallow about Game 2:

If the Celtics had gotten to the line, they might have been able to win the game despite their poor shooting stretch. Boston attempted only nine free throws in the game. In 1,879 playoff games over the last 25 years, the Celtics are one of only eight home teams to attempt fewer than 10 free throws.

UPDATE: In today's shootaround, Doc expressed the need to free Pierce off down screens because his knee is hampering him:

"We're not sure where those spots are yet," Doc Rivers said. "Usually with Paul, the elbow ISOs are great, but right now he can't get away from anybody with his leg. We're going to go to more pin downs for him and do different things. You usually didn't have to get a body off of him. He can usually shake the body on his own. I think, now we have to use him a lot like Ray [Allen] and bring him off screens."
If all else fails, throw the ball into KG. Beckley Mason at Truehoop wrote the latest love letter about Garnett turning back the clock:

Like the rest of the NBA, the 76ers haven't come up with an adequate answer to Garnett's long range shooting, and he's been able to take advantage of the Sixers in the post, where he can create shots for himself and, and when doubled, for his teammates. Philadelphia's wing defenders present a tenacious and largely interchangeable thicket. The Celtics' only reliable ways through involve Garnett. Even when he's not the focal point of a pick and roll, or a post-up, he's also Boston's best screener. On his least taxing offensive plays he's still throwing his body around, colliding with 76ers, in an effort to spring his teammates free.

With the team so banged up, Garnett's been the team's first option, but I can understand why Doc tried to get the rest of the team involved in the first half on Monday night. Garnett only took three shots in the first half, in part because the Sixers doubled often but mainly because Garnett didn't ground-and-pound as much. I think he and Doc understand that for the Celtics to be successful, they're going to need more efforts like that Game 4 offensive explosion.

The Celtics and lived and died with their mid-range game all year and generally, they've been pretty good at it. Down 1 with ten seconds left, sure. I'd love to see Ticket on the block with the ball in his hands, but over the course of an entire game, I want Rondo distributing the ball, Bass being his release valve, Ray and Avery working off the ball, and Pierce slashing.

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