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Celtics bench starting to fly around on offense


NBA: Preseason-Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

PG-C Dribble hand off.

Defender goes under, PG pull up for jumper. Defender goes over, C rolls, off ball pin down initiated.

SG open, pass the ball. SG not open, SF-PF screen the screener and hit the PF cutter.

Those could be all the reads and reactions in one half court set of the Celtics offense. It seems complicated on paper, but after a month of training camp, it’ll look like an effortless dance.

Through the first two preseason games, the starters average nearly a +18 in just over 20 minutes per game. Even after just 10 days of official practice, they’re clicking on all cylinders. The bench, on the other hand, is still a work in progress.

Here’s a telling stat: Avery Bradley alone has 11 assists in 46 minutes; that’s the same number assists as Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown have combined in 134 minutes. In the second unit’s defense, they’re not playing with two All-Stars and the longest standing Celtic, Bradley, in their lineup. They’re without versatile center Kelly Olynyk and none of them are pure shooters. Maybe they’re a bunch of young players trying too hard to make a play and for some, make the team.

It’s only the second week of training camp, so it’s not time to panic. The bench looked crisper in Thursday’s game against the Hornets and it’s not because shots were falling. It’s how the shots were coming. Here’s Brad Stevens:

The Celtics don’t have a Steph Curry or LeBron James. Curry, with his deceptive handle and all-gym range, and James, with his linebacker physique and athleticism, can get a good shot by themselves and in turn, for their teammates. For the most part, Boston has to generate mismatches and space as a team.

Here’s a good example of how quick the Celtics offense reads and reacts to the Hornets’ defense. After a Charlotte timeout, Boston ran a quick hitting ATO. Seeing that Isaiah Thomas didn’t create any space from Ramon Sessions, Amir Johnson finds Avery Bradley coming off a pin down screen from Al Horford (and creates misdirection with a roll to the rim). Bradley knows that he has Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on his hip, so he penetrates the lane to draw in the overzealous shot-blocking Roy Hibbert. Horford calmly pops behind the three point line and hits a 3.

The Celtics will play small a lot this season, but when teams roll out a small starting lineup against Boston’s big front court of Johnson, Horford, and Jae Crowder, they’ll happily take advantage of it.

The old school approach to posting up a player would be just to throw it down to him on the low block and let him go to work. Stevens is more clever. With smaller Marvin Williams guarding the bigger and stronger Horford, the Celtics use crisp ball movement to find Al an easy look. It’s a good example of what effective off ball action can accomplish.

The starting five spaces the floor as Horford gains position on the low block. With Hibbert having to stay above the break to avoid an illegal defense, the Celtics just have to move the ball around until Horford seals Williams and Thomas can find the angle for a lob pass and a lay up.

Similar concept here. Horford and Bradley play a little hot potato and that freezes Nic Batum and Williams just enough to force the switch. Horford angles off Batum, Thomas hits him with a great pass, and he’s fouled.

The bench, on the other hand, has been a different story. Here’s a typical possession from the second unit.

The play results in a Jonas Jerebko runner in the lane, but nobody moves with energy or intent. Tyler Zeller’s screens don’t create a lot of separation and Marcus Smart meanders into the paint. When you watch the starters, you can see them making decisions instinctively and instantly. There’s not a lot of “hmmm, let me see what I can do with the ball here” moments.

Every extra dribble to assess the coverage gives the defense time to recover. Every wasted motion closes a gap. It’s supposed to “he’s not open”—>PASS—>“I’ll cut back door”—>ZIP—>“ready to catch and shoot”—>SHOT—>BANG. The Celtics offense should look more like an old school Batman episode and less like fly fishing.

But they were better. Forget that Rozier, Smart, and Brown shot 14-for-28. What’s promising is how everybody moved with purpose. The low assist numbers are troubling—that trio combined for two—but they did play with pace, including, ahem, James Young.

The ball doesn’t move around as much as the starters, but guys are moving deliberately. By creating that side-to-side action, you can catch the defense collectively leaning and counter the other way. Johnson doesn’t set the best flare screen, but it’s enough to get Young driving with his strong hand. Frank Kaminsky has to stay home, Young finds Brown in the corner, Kaminsky weakly closes out, and Brown attacks the rim.

Here’s another:

Olynyk’s return should help out the bench immensely. It’s been reported that he’ll see a doctor next week to determine whether his shoulder is strong enough for full contact. KO could really make this second unit sing. His skills are a contrast to his teammates on the bench, but opposites attract, right? Having a big out there that can stretch the floor and keep rim protectors out of the paint should help the cutting/slashing/driving Rozier, Brown, and Smart. However, none of that will matter unless the young Celtics can continue their current progress. Stevens has preached the need for consistency with them and the last six quarters have been a good start.

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