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Divide and conquer: how the Celtics created gaps and hit the holes hard

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Quarterback draw for a lay up. Halfback dive for a dunk. Fullback counter for an easy two. With a focus on hitting the gap Monday night, the Celtics scored 54 points in the paint against the Nets.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

In last weekend's home loss to the Nets, the Celtics didn't look aggressive.  They had 35 FGA's in the restricted area against Brooklyn's big front line of Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, and Joe Johnson.  Boston is 7th in the league at shots at the rim at 29.0 per game so Saturday's above average performance should have been a positive, but when you're on a two-game losing streak against the league's worst teams, just above average won't cut it.

In yesterday's shootaround, Boston focused on getting to the rim:

They started the session by setting up four folding chairs and doing some shooting drills in which players dribbled past the chairs and to the rim, and the chairs weren't very efficient defenders. Then, when the brief practice in the nondescript gym was closed to the media, it took on a singular focus.

"We just talked about getting into the paint, getting into the paint, getting into the paint," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, repeating the point for emphasis.

Before the game, Stevens shuffled the starting lineup by replacing the slumping Jared Sullinger with the space-creating Kelly Olynyk and inserting the playmaking Evan Turner for the injured Avery Bradley.  While Bradley/Sullinger/Thomas/Johnson/Crowder has done OK this season (11-11), it's not the most offensively dynamic starting five.  For Stevens' pace-and-space, read-and-react offense to truly sing, you need five guys out there that can do a little bit of everything and Olynyk and Turner are Boston's best utility men.

With a new lineup laser focused at getting easy buckets, the team finished with a whopping 48 shots at the rim.

Coming out of training camp, the plan was to surround Thomas with shooters so he could drive and kick and in turn, perimeter threats would create driving lanes.  Olynyk was a perfect candidate to come off the bench with the presumed 6th man, but with IT4 joining the starting lineup because of a multitude of injuries to the back court, the two have only played 366 minutes together.  By comparison, Thomas has played 679 minutes with Sullinger and 636 with Johnson.

Against the Nets Monday night, the two shared the floor for 28 minutes and were a +16.  The open spacing was noticeable with KO working above the break and in the corners.  Here's Olynyk pulling Young away from the basket and allowing Thomas to score the and-1 on the secondary break.

Pace-and-space won't work unless you're reading and reacting quickly and aggressively.  Crowder was in full beast mode at Barclays, hitting gaps like a running back.  Here, as soon as the ball rotates to him from Amir Johnson, he takes advantage of a sleeping Joe Johnson's misstep and drives hard to the rim.  Olynyk does his best Sullinger impression and clears out Young.

I love Avery Bradley, but he's not the penetrator that Evan Turner is.  Adding another ball handler next to Thomas alleviates his responsibilities of being the playmaker on the floor and allows him to catch the ball on the swing with the defense already comprised.  With two guys attacking, the defense is constantly back pedaling and for guys like Thomas and Turner, it's fish in a barrel, especially against Shane Larkin and Bojan Bogdanovic.

At Oklahoma State, Marcus Smart did most of his damage as a hard driver for the Cowboys and he'll add that dimension to the team as the Celtics head into the second half of the season.  This pretty reverse sealed the game for Boston.

With Smart rounding back into shape, it also gives Stevens yet another point guard to rely on in pick-and-rolls.  He's vastly improved on his passes since his rookie season with his ability to hit rollers with a pocket pass.

It was a nice bounce back win for the Celtics, but realistically, it did come against a 10-24 Nets squad now without their starting point guard, Jarrett Jack.  After a Wednesday re-re-match with the Detroit Pistons in the Garden, Boston embarks on a three game road trip against the Chicago Bulls (who are 9-4 since the Celtics beat them in early December), a Jekyl & Hyde Grizzlies team, and the New York Knicks.  They'll need to show similar aggressiveness over their next four games to at least get a split, if not a 3-1 stretch.