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Big road win revisited: how the Celtics beat the hottest team in the NBA

Before Saturday night's game, the Pacers were the hottest team in basketball, posting a 13-2 record since February 1st and boasting a seven-game winning streak. So, how did the Celtics go into Indianapolis without Isaiah Thomas and Jared Sullinger and pull out an important gutsy win to draw them within a game of the 7th seed? Team ball.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After Saturday's wire-to-wire win, the voice of the Celtics, Mike Gorman, tweeted:

That's Gorman saying that, not Tommy Heinsohn.  Gorman's the straight man in the booth and not one for hyperbole, but he's absolutely right.  There is something special here.  My guess is that Brad Stevens would disagree.  He'd ho-hum something about team basketball and playing the right way and guys doing their job, but in a league of superstars, the Celtics are winning without them.

Two of the players that logged the most minutes were merely role players on those Big Three teams.  The bench is made up of what many considered to be trade fill-ins.  This team shouldn't be winning, but they are and it's a beautiful thing.  On Saturday night, there were no heroics by a singer player.  The win against the Pacers was a perfect example of guys working as a unit and trusting each other.  Here are just a handful of examples:

Double screens. Without a star to break down a defense and attract double teams, the Celtics have to use lots of motion and ball movement to generate good looks.  Sometimes, that means setting multiple picks to free up one shooter.

Second Screen

Over the last three games, Phil Pressey has been balling.  After barely seeing the floor in over a month, he's racked up 16 assists with only five turnovers and using his speed and handle to make up for his size.  However, it's the little things (no pun intended) that make the difference.  As Tyler Zeller screens down to free up Luigi Datome, watch Pressey's court awareness.  He prevents his own defender (C.J. Watson) from helping on the play and is ready to set a second screen on Damjan Rudez to clear enough room for the open triple.

Second Screen 2

You saw a lot of this with Doc Rivers drawing up X's and O's for Ray Allen.  Multiple picks are set for Marcus Smart to get the ball on the wing.  Rodney Stuckey does a good job navigating through the minefield of screens, but it's that third pick from Kelly Olynyk that gets Stuckey on Smart's back and allows Smart to penetrate against the slower Ian Mahinmi.


There aren't necessarily multiple picks in this set, but it's a good example of what we talk about when we say that Stevens' offense is a read-and-react system.  Usually when a big dribbles towards the sideline and you get that crisscross action, he'll give it to the guard flashing up or find the cutter.  Here, Zeller keeps his dribble alive as David West lazily tries to strip the ball from behind.  It creates a 2-on-1 situation with Zeller and Jae Crowder bulldozing the smaller C.J. Miles.  Crowder seals off Miles and Zeller has an wide open lane for a lay up.  It's not exactly a secondary screen, but it shows how players are working off the ball to get their teammates better looks.

Back cuts. Usually, plays like this are reserved for teams with superstars.  Teams get caught zeroing in on James Harden or LeBron James and their teammates can sneak behind the defense for easy shots.  What Boston has been able to do is create a system where everybody is a threat and has to be checked.  They spread the floor very well and that results in a lot of space for back doors and open cutting lanes.


With Datome coming off two picks above the break, it draws Luis Scola and the shot blocking Roy Hibbert to the free throw line.  Crowder has become a threat from the corner 3 so Stuckey has to respect that shot.  As soon as Crowder sees Datome turn the corner and Stuckey is Stuckey'd to the floor, he cuts baseline for the easy reverse.


Stuckey gets victimized again.  This time, by back door extraordinaire Avery Bradley.


Bradley again.  I'm not even sure what happens here.  Frank Vogel probably feels the same way.  With seven seconds left on the shot clock, why put so much attention on the Brandon Bass and Zeller above the free throw line?  Why allow Bradley to cut from the complete opposite side of the court?  Credit Crowder for looking left and making the bad angle bounce pass as Bradley beats George Hill baseline.

The extra pass. I've made this point before, but it's worth repeating: without a superstar, the Celtics have to generate mismatches and double teams with a lot of ball movement.  The Celtics are 9th in passes per game, 4th in assists, 2nd in assist opportunities per game, and 5th in points created by an assist per 48 minutes.  With Rajon Rondo gone, they no longer have a ball dominant point guard, but they shared that duty with everybody on the floor.


This is just beautiful tic-tac-toe.  Kelly Olynyk slips the pick-and-roll with Evan Turner, hits the cutting Brandon Bass who instead of taking the contested hook shot in the lane, finds an open Bradley for a three.


Check out Kevin's piece on Bradley's improved passing.  Earlier in the season, that's a shot that AB would have forced, seemingly making his decision to shoot as soon as he touched the ball.  However, with two defenders contesting, he lays it off to Bass for an open mid-range jumper.

Team defense. Since the All Star break and the trade deadline, the Celtics have gone 9-5 due in large part to not only their selflessness on offense, but also on their gelling on defense.  The Celtics are 9th in opponents turnovers at 16.2 and 2nd in points off turnovers with 20.4) while second in turnovers at 12.6.  By only committing 12.6 TO's themselves (good for 2nd in the league), the team boasts an assist-to-turnover rate of 1.88 for 2nd in the NBA.


Smart hasn't exactly been showing up big in the box score and his three point shooting has taken a dip since peaking in January, but he's still a terror on defense and doing all the little things on the defensive end.  In that first clip, he'll get credit for the steal by getting his hands in the passing lane, but also notice how low and wide he gets when he cuts off the screen from Scola.  The shot clock was winding down and by hedging hard on the pick, he eliminated a pick-and-roll opportunity for Hill.


Well, that's just mean to do Stuckey like that.


Clip #3 is the best example of Smart's presence on D.  He hounds Hill after a made basket and Hill has to start the half court possession with 7 seconds already off the shot clock.  Smart gets a hand on the first pass to West and when Solomon Hill passes the ball to Roy Hibbert, he takes away the routine pass to George Hill.  Hibbert tries to force a pass into David West and Turner and Bradley get hands on the ball, but that turnover is all about Marcus Smart.


Jae Crowder is the bigger version of Marcus Smart with their defensive versatility and ability to guard multiple positions.  Here, Crowder is guarding Stuckey as he mans the point.  On a pick-and-pop with Scola, Jonas Jerebko--another versatile and mobile defender--switches on to his former Piston teammate and Crowder rips him as he tries to drive into the lane.


This is the defensive equivalent of sharing the ball on offense.  Boston hadn't scored in four minutes and had seen a 12-point lead whittled down to 4.  They needed a defensive stop.  Bass (yet ANOTHER versatile defender) ICEs the initial pick-and-roll between Watson and West, recovers, and successfully ICEs another.  The Pacers try their luck with another two-man game between Hill and West, but Bass and Turner shut that down as well.  Turner uses his wingspan to get a piece of Hill's fall away jumper and Indiana turns the ball over with a shot clock violation at a critical time on the game.

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