At the start of the season, there were questions about how Brad Stevens would juggle lineups and utilize the team's depth to their advantage. With so many players capable of contributing, who could the Celtics lean on on offense? The Thunder have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Steph Curry has been an MVP again for the Warriors. LeBron James is still LeBron James.
Boston still doesn't have a star, but they've utilized an all hands on deck approach to their offense that has mimicked teams like the Spurs and Hawks, and in some instances, featured star turns by several players like Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and Evan Turner. Nine players average 15+ minutes per game (with Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, R.J. Hunter, and James Young not that far behind) and 7+ points per game. Thomas has been Boston's most consistent scorer, scoring at least 20 points in 19 of Boston's 31 games, but there have been 17 other times that a Celtic has reached that mark including KO's 28 against the Warriors, Marcus Smart's 26 in OKC, and eight Avery Bradley sharpshooting performances.
So how are the Celtics doing it? Sunday's game against New York showcased several different ways Boston has taken advantage of their talented roster. Here's one of their pet sets that they ran on consecutive plays to start the game vs. the Knicks. It has all the basic elements of Brad Stevens' offensive system: bigs handling the ball above the break and constant movement and spacing by the wing players.
For the Celtics' first offensive play, Avery Bradley finds Jae Crowder for a three. Sounds simple enough. Crowder has put together an impressing December and it's a good idea to get Carmelo Anthony working on defense. But there's more at play here. There's all the little reads and reactions that are happening on the fly. For instance, watch Isaiah Thomas sell the back screen on Carmelo. IT calls for Crowder to curl baseline. When Crowder sees that Anthony commits to that action, he immediately flares up. Amir Johnson reads Crowder's cut and hits Carmelo with a down screen and Crowder hits the open three.
On the ensuing possession, Anthony doesn't allow Crowder separation, so Thomas uses that scrum as a first pick, Johnson sets a similar down screen as before, and Bradley finds Thomas for the exact same shot.
Minutes later, they run the exact same action with Jonas Jerebko setting the down screen. JJ doesn't create as much space as Johnson, but it's enough for Thomas to put Jose Calderon on his back and drive. With the defense collapsing, Thomas now has the option to hit the rolling Johnson to his left or the popping Jerebko to his right.
This is where it gets complicated (for the Knicks). With Evan Turner as the primary ball handler instead of Thomas, it's a brand new ball game. Here's the same action in the third quarter, but ET doesn't complete the curl to the weak side. Instead, he stops short on the shorter Langston Galloway and puts him in the post. The bigs clear the side and Turner goes to work.
We've seen a renaissance of late for Kelly Olynyk and he's a great example of how Brad Stevens caters the offense to players with KO's unique size and skills. Because of his ability to put the ball on the floor and make passes, a lot of the action when he's in the game involves this sideline-to-sideline weave that the Celtics use to initiate the offense. Here, Olynyk dribble hands off to Crowder for a drive and a floater. With Kristap Porzingis hanging so far back, Olynyk really isn't in a position to drive himself so he creates a lane for JC.
As the game progressed, the Knicks tried to anticipate the Celtics' next move. The problem with that is that there's always a counter. My guess is, Derrick Williams thought that Olynyk was going to reverse the ball back to Bradley on a dribble hand off so he tries to force KO left. As soon as Olynyk recognizes Williams' commitment to that side of the floor, he takes advantage and drives hard to the rim and earns a pair of free throws.
I think I've pointed this out dozens of times in other articles, but check out Jared Sullinger reading the play, too. As soon as he reads Olynyk's drive, he starts clearing out Kyle O'Quinn and readying himself for an offensive rebound.
Here's that weave at work again. With the constant motion, you're hoping that at some point, the defense is forced to make a bad decision. After a few passes around the horn, Boston catches Williams and Sasha Vujacic switching on Olynyk and R.J. Hunter. As soon as KO sees that, he goes right into the the back down and takes advantage of the mismatch.
The Celtics run the weave action again late in the second. After Bradley sees an opening that's quickly closed by a recovering Arron Afflalo, Olynyk looks to start the motion again. He freezes Lance Thomas with a pass fake and that hesitation allows Jae Crowder to go back door. Read-and-react. Read-and-react.
Without a superstar, Boston has had to get creative about creating shots and so far, they've somewhat succeeded. The Celtics rank 7th in the league at generating open shots (with defenders 4-6 feet away), but are only 19th in eFG% on those shots. Even worse, they rank dead last in eFG% on wide open shots (with defenders 6+ feet away). In other words, the offense is working, but shots just aren't going down. Because of those low shooting percentages, they don't exactly have a prolific offense, but it's been efficient enough to hold up their 3rd rated defense and has the Celtics ranked 7th in net rating at 3.7 and 5th in ESPN's Basketball Power Index. Hopefully, the law of averages starts to catch up because many of the Celtics are shooting at their career worse.
However, there's an even greater value in how the Celtics are playing now that just might pay off in the future. With their unselfish style, they might be able to attract free agents down the road and easily work different players into their system. There are certainly ideal characteristics to be a perfect player for Stevens--well rounded skill set, threat to score from anywhere on the court, and an ability to play defense--but whatever you can do, he'll figure out a way to put you in your sweet spots. And it can't be overstated how empowering it is for a player to be put in a position to not only determine their own success on the floor, but more importantly, the success of their teammates. That philosophy will not only attract players to Boston, but it will attract the right ones.