When the ball flies around the court from player to player, each of them trusting the next to find the right shot and to make the right play, it’s a beautiful thing. The below play from the Celtics during their preseason matchup against the Charlotte Hornets is a great example of fantastic teamwork and brilliant team playmaking.
Avery Bradley spots up as if about to shoot but instead bounces the ball towards a running Amir Johnson. Amir heads towards the ring and as the defense closes in on him they leave Al Horford open to receive the pass. Horford immediately hands off the ball to an even more open Isaiah Thomas, who fakes the jump shot before lobbing the ball to Crowder who has been slowly sneaking into the corner since the action began. Then Crowder hits the wide open three. Beautiful. In fact it’s so beautiful I’m going to put it here again from a different angle.
This type of play epitomizes the possibilities for this Boston Celtics unit. Going into this season Brad Stevens has a roster full of potential playmakers. While last season Isaiah Thomas was the entire focal point of the Celtics offense now the Celtics have developed and made moves to take the pressure off their point guard and primary playmaker.
With the loss of Evan Turner in free agency to the Portland Trailblazers there were justifiable concerns over who would fill the role as the Celtics secondary playmaker on offense. Yet preseason play so far has shown that the void left by Turner may have been overestimated. As rather than any one player stepping up and attempting to replace Turner’s enigmatic playmaking, in true Celtic tradition everyone on the roster has stepped up.
Of course, Isaiah Thomas remains Boston’s undisputed decision-maker on offense and with good reason, his court vision is among the best in the NBA and he has that unquantifiable ability to simply get buckets. Yet if preseason play and Isaiah’s offseason comments are anything to go by we should expect IT to focus on being more of a pure point guard this season.
With more firepower in the frontcourt by way of Al Horford, Isaiah will be looking to hit his teammates with the well-timed pass at every opportunity, below is a good example of IT sharing the ball to set up the best possible shot.
In a great looking back and forth Horford and Thomas run the court side by side. The pair then crash into the defense and manage to upset the Sixers spacing through continued passing. In a relatively rare move, IT actually backs out of going straight at the bucket and opts for the wiley pass to Horford who makes the easy basket.
Beyond pairing up with Horford though, Isaiah has shown growth at reading the floor and working off the ball. The below play, involving Zeller and Crowder is perfectly set-up by IT draws out the defense after handing off the ball and then goes in to get the crafty bucket himself.
The fact that Isaiah’s passing game would be much improved by the mere addition of Horford to the lineup was already obvious going into the season. Horford’s presence as a passing big and a playmaker in the frontcourt affords Isaiah and the team all kinds of extra options. The play below, shows Horford running the court and then pausing to make the pass to IT who handoffs to Avery for the open shot.
It’s a good example of the type of fast-paced, quick thinking playing style that makes Horford such an obvious upgrade on Jared Sullinger. It’s already been said, almost ad nauseum at this point, but Horford is the type of player who will make everyone on the team better. He can take the pressure off Isaiah as a playmaker, give extra space to shooters like Bradley and Crowder, and he can help Amir in the frontcourt.
While Horford improving the roster was essentially expected, Avery Bradley’s development as a passer during preseason play has been somewhat of a revelation. Avery has a checkered history with acting as a playmaker, generally he’s been more comfortable developing as a three and D type of guy. Yet when Bradley entered the league he was far from the defensive threat we see on the court today and his shooting was barely there. In a recent piece by Chris Forsberg, Avery spoke about how he’s been working on his skills as a playmaker in order to become a genuine two-way threat.
Although it’s a limited sample size, his improved playmaking in the preseason has been pretty phenomenal. For a guy who used to throw out passes like this it’s pretty amazing that he’s now initiating plays like the one below where he slows down on the break and finds an open Isaiah Thomas who hits with a trailing three-pointer.
Beyond his improved passing, Bradley’s dribbling has been impressive as well. A number of moves he’s pulled off in the preseason I’d never seen him use in-game before, using dribble-penetration and screens in ways that, if I’m honest, I thought were beyond his skill set. Watch the below play where Bradley expertly uses the screen to slow down his own defender on the dribble while simultaneously drawing in Philly’s frontcourt players. With all the focus on him Bradley then drives and kicks to get Crowder the bucket.
Bradley acting as an initiator on offense could be even more instrumental to the Celtics this season than Horford’s added playmaking. Having two potential playmakers in the backcourt is almost par for the course in the NBA today and it’s something that hasn’t really happened in Boston since before the reign of Rondo. With Bradley adding an extra dimension to his game through utilising more dribbling and improved passing, he can provide much needed assistance to Isaiah in the backcourt, particularly when defenses are closing out on the little guy. Operating in tandem the pair can confuse opposing defenses by alternating their roles on offense.
Another advantage of Bradley’s improved passing is that Stevens runs a lot of off-ball action to distract defenses, in many cases to get Bradley an open shot. However these types of plays could be even more effective if Bradley can change up whether he shoots, drives or passes off the catch.
Whereas the starting five have looked devastatingly strong during the preseason the second unit was kind of underwhelming when on the court together. There were however some nifty plays to give hope for the future of Boston’s backcourt. Smart commanded the offense for most of the second preseason matchup against Charlotte and overall his preseason play has been pretty positive. Like Isaiah and Avery, Smart appears to have spent a lot of the offseason focusing on sharing the ball and finding open teammates. This play has Smart receive the pass from Brown and then drive to the lane before kicking out to a wide open Terry Rozier with an on-point pass.
Below is another play that shows off Smart’s potential on the point. While the highlight of this play might be Jaylen Brown’s high-flying dunk it’s the over-the-back no-look pass by Smart that actually sets Jaylen up for the big finish.
Smart wasn’t the only one on the second unit searching for his teammates though. After his stellar play in Summer League, Celtics fans were ready to hand the keys to the kingdom over to Terry Rozier. But the preseason has shown that there’s still a ways to go for the young guard before he can truly command the court. Nonetheless he did manage to pull off some impressive plays and was at the center of a lot of the action. Such as this play where Terry passes first to Zeller, then draws out defenders through his off-ball action, then passes off to Jerebko before driving to the lane and bailing out of a layup attempt at the last minute to pass the ball to a wide open Zeller under the rim who finally finishes the play .
As Terry and Smart seem to be comfortably stepping into their increased roles as rotation players, Jaylen Brown has also shown some pretty amazing on the court leadership. Not to be outdone, the number 3 pick from this year’s draft showed off some playmaking skills during the preseason, threading the needle and making the right pass on more than one occasion. Below is a good example of the rookie’s surprisingly developed court vision as he drives towards the basket attracting defenders and then hits Jonas Jerebko under the rim with a well-executed bounce pass.
Rather than seek to replace Evan Turner’s offensive abilities by leaning on a single player, instead several of the Celtics have developed their playmaking skills. The addition of Al Horford was always going to be advantageous, but Avery’s development, Isaiah and Smart’s renewed dedication to searching for the right pass, as well as Jaylen Brown’s solid form and Rozier’s growth as a player are all indicative of a Celtics team that has an abundance of potential playmakers. Where there was thought to be a glaring gap in the Celtics offense, playmaking is now looking like one of the Celtics biggest strengths going into this season.
Most of all this team looks like they’re capable of executing Stevens most grandiose plays and working perfectly within his read and react offensive schemes. Granted it’s an extremely limited sample size but during the preseason the starting unit is operating with so much chemistry and camaraderie they look like they’ve been playing together for years.
When operating together on the court this group moves the ball with purpose and patience, finding the right shots and helping each other out at every opportunity. While the second unit has also shown off their varied skill-sets with several players poised to make a leap this year.
With so many additional guys picking up the slack this team is operating like a well-oiled machine and we can only hope their up-tempo, assist-heavy offense carries into the regular season. Because beyond being an effective way to win games and play basketball it’s also a lot of fun to watch.