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Celtics make bigger Pistons look small

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In a must win game, the Celtics attacked one of the Pistons' strengths--interior size--to the tune of 34 free throw attempts and 36 points in the paint.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

This wasn't supposed to happen.  Greg Monroe was returning to the starting lineup after missing 11 games with a knee injury and with him back in the back court with fellow big man Andre Drummond, the Celtics were supposed to struggle with them in the paint.  Monroe and Drummond did put up 19 and 22 respectively and the Pistons collectively scored 58 points in the paint, but they were neutralized on the defensive end with Boston spreading them out and having their wings attacking them in space.

After the game, Stevens said, "We were getting to the rim; we were getting to the line," Stevens said. "We obviously shot more free throws than usual. We shot it really well. But the idea was to spread those bigs out and drive them. Whether it's the guy driving at the big as a guard or the next reversal pass driving them, we wanted to keep driving the ball."

Much has been made about Stevens' motion offense.  The ball whips around from side to side in order to make the defense work and more importantly, make commitments it doesn't want to make.  On the ESPN broadcast, Doug Collins mentioned Van Gundy's concern with the Boston bigs. I'm paraphrasing here, but in a nutshell, he was worried because they're all skilled: they can shoot, drive and pass.

Well, that proved to be a recipe for disaster for Detroit.

Thirty-four free throws is a lot and uncharacteristic for this team, but they have shown a new found aggressiveness that has powered this late season drive. Much of the credit should go to Isaiah Thomas, but in recent games against New York (43 FTA's) and Miami (37 FTA's), it's been guys like Jae Crowder and two-hand jam Brandon Bass that have also gotten to the line with regularity.

In this first clip, the pick and pop with Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk seems harmless enough, but it's that slight help fromTayshaun Prince that opens the door to Jae Crowder's drive on the ball reversal.

Crowder Drive

Again, the movement here kills Detroit.  Thomas finds Smart on the back door cut, forcing Prince to help.  Drummond's left guarding two players.  He initially scrambles to the corner to help on Crowder, stumbles back to the flashing Olynyk, and bites on a pump fake.  Olynyk isn't exactly fleet of foot, but get a big guy on skates and KO's craftiness earns him two freebies.

olynyk rack

There's little ball movement in this Isaiah Thomas-Jared Sullinger pick and roll, but it does illustrate again Boston's commitment to driving the ball against Detroit's D.  Even an out-of-shape Sully knows that if he can get Drummond on his hip, he needs to take it to the rack.

sullinger drive

In the second half, the Pistons tried to ice the picks a little harder so that Celtics wouldn't be able to swing the ball as effectively.  Here, Olynyk slips the screen on Anthony Tolliver and forces Greg Monroe to help.  That's child's play for Brandon Bass as he cuts bass line for the easy dunk.

olynyk to bass

At 4:03 left in the third, it was a one possession game with the Celtics clinging to a 72-70 lead.  The Pistons had zero team fouls and had nearly erased an 8-point halftime deficit.  Then the floodgates opened along with Detroit's defense.  Boston outscored Detroit 19 to 4 to close out the quarter, including ten free throws and two and-1's.

Really, Isaiah Thomas happened.  We don't see as much ball movement here, but with all the Pistons defenders staying home on their covers to prevent a lot of switching, as soon as Thomas gets freed up on the double screen action between Crowder and Tyler Zeller, he's playing Reggie Jackson like a hand puppet.  With a change of pace dribble, he freezes him and Drummond and goes in for the and-1.

In his post game comments, IT quipped, "I don't know what they were messing up on, but when I got in the teeth of the defense, there were about four or five times when no one's around. That's weird for me."

thomas and 1

So much of this is lazy Pistons' defense.  Here, Boston's ball movement does cause the help defense to shift, but Drummond just watches Jonas Jerebko stroll easily to the basket for a finger roll.

jerebko drive

With the Celtics sitting at #7 and LeBron James considering sitting out the weekend's home-and-home with Boston, the playoff push is in full effect. However, it's not too early to think about the types of players that will be on Ainge's radar in the draft and this summer.  We'll save the scouting reports for June and July, but if you're checking out mock drafts and free agency lists, consider the players that have been very successful under Brad Stevens of late.  They're all guys that can defend, shoot, and put the ball on the floor.

That last Jerebko clip is the perfect example.  He was seemingly a throw-in in the trade that sent Prince back to Motown and saved Danny some buyout money, but he's been the prototypical player for Brad Stevens' system.  So, while there's a good chance we'll miss out on freshmen big men Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Celtics could target more finished players like Frank Kaminsky.