After Wednesday's game against the Nets, I couldn't think about anything to write about. You kinda knew what the stories were going to be in the post-game--Jared Sullinger looked bad, R.J. Hunter looked good, and the ball movement was great--but I wanted to take a more macro look at the team.
After throttling two Euro teams, the Celtics were finally going up against NBA-caliber talent (I know it's Brooklyn but still) and I really wanted to see Brad Stevens test drive this 10-11 man rotation he's tinkered with in Milan and Madrid. Unfortunately, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and David Lee sat out to rest and Terry Rozier had a bum knee. I thought, "well, this isn't a true test because not everybody is healthy and guys are going to be playing with teammates they're not used to."
But as this training camp and preseason goes along, I've begun to realize that that really doesn't matter. Danny Ainge has targeted players for Stevens that fit his mold and he's been able to plug-and-play (a catchphrase that should be quickly adopted with "pace-and-space" and "read-and-react") anybody without a hitch. With four players that saw considerable time in Boston's first two preseason games sitting on the bench, the Celtics just went along and mowed down another team.
So what do you write about? With the Big Three, you could talk about role players making a difference and supporting the stars or analyze how KG quarterbacks a pick-n-roll, but with these Celtics, there doesn't seem to be these definitive topics that we know we'll be talking about all year.
It's such a cliche, but this roster is truly playing for each other and it's just awesome to watch. The only predictable thing about them is how unpredictable they're going to be on any given night because they've adopted this next man up mentality where anybody could put together a solid stat line. Stevens has stressed making the "right basketball play" and you can see that mantra developing in the backbone of this rebuild. We've talked so much on CelticsBlog about who the next star is going to be on this team, but like a lot of people have said, maybe it is Brad Stevens.
In two years and on the cusp of his third, he's implemented a mindset with his players that if you're playing the game the right way, you're going to find playing time on this team. It's just beautiful to watch. Some people like art, some people like music, but I like this Celtics team. Behold:
Sometimes, the most basic things in basketball can be so pretty. My guess is that Isaiah Thomas' first move is to take the Amir Johnson screen and down pick for Jae Crowder. But he reads Jarrett Jack going to far under the screen, Johnson re-picks, and Thomas is wide open for the 3. To play for Brad Stevens, you've got to be able to not only read and react, but read and react quickly and have teammates do the same thing. Thomas and Johnson work together to perfection here.
This is why Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko are going to be successful bigs in this system (and to some extent, why Sullinger will not). Kelly and Jonas are threats from behind the arc so defenders have to close out on them, but both guys can also put it on the floor. Olynyk sees the defense compromised, attacks the paint, and makes the right pass to Johnson for the easy two.
This is kind of a broken play that ends up working out in their favor, but let's concentrate on that early action in the beginning. By now, we're really familiar with these wing dribble hand offs. What Stevens is hoping for is someone breaks lose or a small mismatch develops after all that action. None of the Nets switch, but the movement does create enough of a driving lane for Olynyk to challenge Thaddeus Young (a stronger, quicker player) off the dribble. Olynyk gets raked by Shane Larkin, but he sticks with the play and hits Thomas for a wide open 3.
This is just the perfect example of the right basketball decision followed by another right basketball decision and so on and so forth. It's a little bit of an acting job by Sergey Karasev, but one of the things that Sullinger is good at is setting those hard screens. As soon as Olynyk recognizes it, he swings it to Sully, Sully sees Larkin close out on him and swings it to the cutting Hunter, and Hunter drops it down on a sweet bounce pass to Evan Turner. It should be no surprise that the team finished with 28 assists on 40 field goals on Wednesday night.
Recognize your strengths. Olynyk has the handle of a point guard. Mickey runs to the rim. And all three shooters--Thomas, Hunter, and Jerebko--fan out behind the arc on the fast break. Do you.
But it hasn't been all roses. I hate to pick on Sullinger here, but this is just one example of making the wrong basketball decision and unfortunately, a lot of his playing has looked like this. He slips a screen and takes a contested turnaround. It's a long 2 with plenty of time on the shot clock and none of his teammates are in position for an offensive rebound. We've seen a lot of this from Sully so far where he's taken a lot of jump shots or forced it in the paint.
Perry Jones III makes this step back, but look at his expression after the shot. He knows he's acting outside of the offense. And then there's the reaction shot from Stevens. You can see him imploring the young players to move the ball around and pick up the pace.
I mentioned this in our CelticsBlog roundtable about Sullinger, but I'm sure there are teams out there looking for a grinder big man that can bulldoze his way in the paint or a 6'11 swingman with PJIII's athleticism. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?