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Let it fly: how the pump fake is killing the Celtics

Monday's offensive explosion against the Timberwolves showed that when the Celtics are playing carefree and loose, they're hard to stop.

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Stevens has always preached to his players to make the right basketball play.  I think when most players hear that, they instinctively think make the right pass or the right cut or the right defensive rotation.  It's rarely shooting.  Shooting is selfish.  You don't want to be a ball hog.  It's an all or nothing endeavor; make it and you're a hero, but miss it and you're the goat.

On Monday night, Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson both sat out with injuries.  Initially, I was worried.  The Celtics were on a three game losing streak and without two starters, the rotations would be all out of whack and players that hadn't seen a lot of playing time in the past would get valuable minutes against a hungry young team spearheaded by Kevin Garnett.

There was chatter that Boston had had two successful practices over the weekend, but without two key cogs, I thought they'd come out tentative and gun shy.  After a strong start to December, Kelly Olynyk had faded during the losing streak and was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup.  David Lee had been clamoring for more playing time, but as one of the biggest net negatives on the roster, adding him alongside KO sounded like an analytical disaster waiting to happen.

But on the contrary, the Celtics came out smoking.  Boston opened a 34-26 lead in the first, shooting a sizzling 4-for-5 from behind the arc and hitting 13 of its first 22 shots with 8 assists and only 3 turnovers.  The ball moved with zip and guys were just letting it fly.  The team forced its pace (100.56 for the game, a smidge lower than its 101.17 season average) on the younger but slower Timberwolves.

On the micro level--and admittedly, maybe I'm reading too much into this--I felt like one of the messages coming out of Saturday and Sunday's practice was "if you've got a shot, shoot the ball."  I remember Avery Bradley saying once that the team was trying to pass up good shots for great shots.  That's all well and good, but sometimes, especially against good defensive teams like the Hawks and Cavaliers, a good shot is all you're going to get.

The biggest example of this hesitation to be "greedy" is Olynyk.  Part of me doesn't blame him.  He's a 7-foot match up nightmare that can take opposing big men off the dribble and see over smaller defenders to make the right pass.  He's not a prototypical playmaker, but he's a point guard at heart and would seemingly rather see a teammate score than himself.

Unfortunately, that can manifest itself in a split second of doubt and for anyone that's played basketball, you know that the slightest disruption in rhythm can throw everything off.  You get in that three point stance, ready to catch and shoot, but you pump fake, put the ball on the floor, and put up an awkward shot instead.  We saw it time and time again last week:

Sometimes, the pump fake works for Kelly.  He was already on fire against Karl Anthony-Towns in the first half and had built up some confidence and in the third quarter, hitting him with this jab step was the cherry on a sundae:

When KO uses the fake looking to score, he looks great and if he continues to be aggressive, refs will start rewarding him with free throws:

But he gets into trouble with ball fakes and weak sauce:

Another player that's been plagued with the yips has been Jonas Jerebko.  JJ has a natural hitch in his shot and it's only accentuated when he's pump faking and trying to create off the bounce.

On Monday, Jerebko became the catch-and-shooter that found success here last season and earned him another contract with the Celtics.  He spread the floor by hanging out on the perimeter and looked to shoot as soon as he touched the ball:

Here's why I love Tyler Zeller so much and why I hope that he gets more playing time going forward.  He's really versatile in pick-and-roll/pops because he can hit the mid-range and he's got an assortment of floaters and hooks for finishing around the rim.  That's what won him the starting job alongside Rajon Rondo last year.  However, his biggest strength might be the quickness that he makes decisions in the read-and-react.  If there's any space to get off a shot, he'll take it.  His 7-for-10 performance against Minnesota should be on a constant loop at Waltham:

Obviously, the win against the Timberwolves is a small sample size, but it should be a template for how the Celtics approach their offense in the future: if you've got a shot, don't be afraid to take it.  After the game, Olynyk compared making 3's as contagious as the flu.  Well, it's flu season.  Boston has a seven game stretch of winnable games to close out the year.  Let's see if they can a hot streak.

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