The Boston Celtics opened up their preseason against the Toronto Raptors on Monday night, falling 97-89. But the final score doesn't really matter because new head coach Brad Stevens is using the preseason to tinker with his lineup and find out what works best. While nothing is definite after only 48-minutes of action, there is a lot to takeaway after game one.
Unselfish ball-movement will be key
The Celtics earned 25 assists off of 33 field goals last night. This is a terrific number and would've been even more impressive had the Celtics drained open shots in the first quarter. But how did they accumulate assists at this rate anyway?
Quick ball-movement thanks to a motion-based offense. The Celtics occasionally passed the ball like it was a hot potato until they found an open shot, and when the ball stayed on the perimeter, it never remained in one player's hands for very long. The ball was always moving, all while off-ball screens occurred on the other side of the court, which was meant to open up a player for an open shot attempt. While the Celtics ran this style of offense efficiently last night, look for them to play even faster in the upcoming weeks.
The C's also utilized the "Hi-Lo" offensive set, which is one reason why Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk totaled nine assists. "Hi-Lo" is often used with smaller lineups or when big men have passing abilities, so that suits the abilities of Olynyk, Sullinger, and Gerald Wallace, who had four assists himself.
Each big is able to come to the top of the key off of movement, allowing them the freedom to either shoot or pass the ball. Both Sully and Olynyk made some great plays, passing the ball over the top of the defense to cutting players underneath the rim. This set also utilizes a lot of screens on and off the ball, opening up pick-and-pop or rolls for perimeter players.
Up for Wallace, Down for Green
Where is the "mean" Jeff Green? No one was more disappointing last night than him. Green scored only six points on 2-of-7 shooting, and never seemed to really "get in the game." He was passive and didn't attack the basket like he should. It's not worth overreacting and overanalyzing after just one game, but it's important for him to find his place in this offense over the course of the next couple of weeks.
On the other hand, Gerald Wallace thrust himself right into the action with 16 points, four assists, two rebounds, and one steal. Wallace played very good defense and seemed like he was looking to make a play anytime he had the ball in his hands. His best play came in the first quarter, when he rebounded the ball and motored it up the floor before dishing it off to Kelly Olynyk for an easy layup. His abilities as a point-forward will be extremely useful for Brad Stevens to utilize this season.
Look for more variety in half-court sets
The Celtics ran pick-and-roll motion-based plays about 80 percent of the time against the Raptors. In my notes, I recorded only seven post-up shot attempts, and only four plays run out of the "Horns" set. In the next seven-preseason games, I hope to see more variety when it comes to sets run in the half-court.
Interestingly enough, I thought the Celtics had a lot of success when running "Horns" plays. With this set, two bigs set up on their respective "elbow" in the paint. Every other player spreads the floor, and then a number of different plays can occur. My favorite one came late in the third quarter, with Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee, and Jordan Crawford all on the floor.
In image one, Crawford brings the ball up the court as the Celtics are in Horns. Olynyk comes up to start the play and receives the pass in image two. As Crawford makes the pass, he makes a cut through Sullinger's screen. Sullinger receives the ball in image three and this is where the magic really happens. Crawford continues his cut all the way to the corner and sets a loose back screen on Wallace's man.
Wallace then makes a hard cut to the basket in image four and receives the pass for a wide-open layup. The best thing about this play is that Jared Sullinger had two other options had Wallace not been open. If covered, Crawford would've been open for a wide-open three-pointer, because the defenders essentially screened each other. And if Wallace brought help defense by the weak side defender (Lee's man), then Lee would've been open in the corner for a three-pointer. And of course, if everyone was covered, Sullinger could've shot or aborted the play entirely. Considering the talented passing big men that the Celtics have, I'd love to see more plays like this utilized in the future.
Humphries' jump shot is a real thing
A few weeks ago Kris Humphries said he spent all summer working on his jump shot and I had my doubts that he would be able to successfully do so. However, if last night's game is any indication, then he succeeded in adding a mid-range jumper to his arsenal. Hump has very good form on his shot, looking very natural, with no signs of a hitch on his delivery.
If Humphries is able to hit a 15-to-18 foot jumper consistently, he will become even more valuable, as he will allow Brad Stevens to utilize him in a number of different ways in this "positionless offense." Last night we saw Humphries in the pick-and-pop game with ball-handlers on multiple occasions, which is something you would rarely see from him before this season.
The 6'9" power forward only had four rebounds in just under 24-minutes, but I thought he did quite a good job boxing out. His opponent, Jonas Valanciunas, is just as strong as him but also a lot longer, so Hump was at a disadvantage in the first place. If Humphries plays more power forward he will be able to grab rebounds at a more frequent rate.
He also drew two charges, much to the pleasure of his teammates and coaches. Kris Humphries was willing to put his body on the line and seemed to be hustling despite this being only the first preseason game. I expect that he will win over fans sooner rather than later with plays similar to those that we saw last night.
Bradley's role changes based on the personnel
I found it intriguing that Brad Stevens used Avery Bradley in two different roles based on the guard that he was paired with. As expected, AB was the starting point guard when he was paired with Courtney Lee. However, when Jordan Crawford substituted into the game, Bradley would shift to the two-guard.
It might have been pure coincidence - and the sample size is too small to judge - but Bradley's defensive intensity seemed to pick up when Jordan Crawford was in the game. If this is the case, it's probably because Bradley is able to expound more energy on defense, instead of having to focus so much on offense when he runs the point. Perhaps this is the reason why Stevens had Crawford run the point when Bradley was in the game. It also could help ease the transition when Rajon Rondo eventually returns to the court.
For the game, Bradley scored 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting, to go along with three assists, three steals, and one rebound. Unfortunately he also had three turnovers, but he played an overall efficient game. Like Brad Stevens said after the game, a lot of AB's assist could go down as "hockey assists."
Crawford plays the point and plays it well
Directly related to the previous topic on Avery Bradley is Jordan Crawford's role in the offense. I was happy to see that Crawford was given the opportunity as the backup point guard, since he proved that he is a very good passer this past season.
You might be asking, "Huh? Crawford is playing point guard? You mean the guy that takes terrible shots and plays like a spaz?" Well, yeah. That guy. Except the player I saw on the court last night was a new, improved, and mature Jordan Crawford. He played cool, calm, and collected, making safe passes and taking shots only when he had to. Gone were the insane shots and plays that made every fan facepalm.
Crawford notched seven points on only 2-of-3 shot attempts, as well as one assist and zero turnovers. Keep an eye on Crawford's role moving forward, since rookie point guard Phil Pressey is expected to play more on Wednesday night. I hope that Crawford's new "game-manager" style is here to stay, because I loved what I saw last night.
Could rebounding become a problem?
I'm not sure how to answer this question just yet, but the Celtics weren't very good against the Raptors, so it's worth discussing. The C's were out-rebounded 46 to 26 and surprisingly had only six rebounds in the first half. The starting lineup lacked a true center with Bass and Humphries in to start the game, which allowed the Raptors to pound the boards.
Personally I'd like to see Sullinger in the starting lineup, as he is the best rebounding center on the team. His positioning is outstanding, he boxes out, and just attacks the ball. Sully knows how to use his body and would help the starting lineup out a lot with his ability to hit the boards hard and grab rebounds to start a new possession.
I am not willing to as far to say that rebounding will be a problem for this roster, because they have plenty of very good individual defenders. What Brad Stevens needs to do is find the right combination that allows the team to rebound and defend well, but not hinder their flexibility on offense. It's only a matter of time before he does that, so don't panic.
Sully looks like the potential starter
Going along the same lines as the last topic, Jared Sullinger was outstanding last night in his first game after back surgery. Sullinger had some monster plays in the fourth quarter, including one play when he totally abused Tyler Hansborough, propelling him out of the way with his behind, clearing the way for an offensive rebound and put back layup. Sullinger's ability to carve out space in the paint is remarkable and can't be undervalued by this team.
Sully grabbed four offensive rebounds in under 20-minutes of action, and was able to score 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting. Not to mention that the Celtics in-and-out offense allowed him to pass for four sweet assists. I was expecting a big year from Sullinger even before last night, but the game made me even more certain that we are in for a treat this year with the return of Jared Sullinger.
- Brandon Bass seems to be incorporating a short ten-foot jumper in the paint. If Bass has the ball in his hands a lot more this year it could become useful, as it would expand his already well-rounded offensive game.
- By my count, the Celtics used a tremendous 16 different lineup combinations on Monday night. I don't expect that number get cut down until we approach the second half of the preseason.
- If you're wondering, Vitor Faverani is already better than Fab Melo. With two blocks and two steals, Faverani showed that he is an aware defensive player. I didn't focus on him this game because I need to see more of him before I make any judgments, but game one was a good start for him.
- 33-year-old Keith Bogans got off to a solid start with the Boston Celtics. He played hard defense and moved the ball well on offense. This is what you expect from a player that is entering the 11th season of his NBA career. There seems to be good chemistry whenever he is on the floor.