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The Read & React: Spurs envy

Another game against San Antonio, another Boston loss.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, these Celtics keep disappointing (Bobby Manning): It was the mark of a great team a year ago. This year, it's been an issue for a mediocre one. Isaiah Thomas' absence mattered, but wasn't nearly as influential as the defensive issues the team faced tonight. It's the same conversation we've been having all season. Sure Kawhi Leonard looks like Michael Jordan out there at this point. Dishing the ball around, setting himself up off the ball to mix Jae Crowder with a few tight dribble moves before turning and hitting an impossible hook shot. The point is, if these Celtics are going to make noise they have to play up to displays of talent at this level. It was their trademark two seasons ago, a year ago. They'd battle with the big dogs. The Spurs put on an astonishing offensive display but we have to expect the C's to play on that level, and beat someone at the top of the league. They're now 0-7 against teams above .600. Players are going to get hurt, good teams are going to play lights out. If we accept this, we aren't expecting much from the Celtics this season.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Not all ball movement is the same (Bill Sy): When Brad Stevens brought his read-and-react offense to Boston, I was excited at the idea of the Celtics becoming a team that put an emphasis on ball movement. This season, the team has certainly been moving the ball. They rank second in passes made, potential assists, and assists. However, the numbers don’t tell the entire story, especially when you’re contrasted against the Spurs.

While San Antonio ranks behind Boston in those categories, they do so much more on the floor particularly off the ball. Comparatively speaking, it looks like the Celtics play station-to-station compared to the swirling, whirling dervish of the Spurs. Sometimes, it feels like Boston’s offense is predicated on the motion (a series of dribble hand offs and picks) generating one mismatch or double team on the ball and then the ball starts whipping around to get an open shot. With the Spurs, players are reading what’s happening away from the ball handler and moving without the ball so that when they catch it, they already have momentum against a defense that’s constantly retreating.

A good example is how the Spurs create 3-point opportunities. They don’t shoot a lot from behind the arc, but it seems like they always get good looks off of multiple actions and unselfish basketball. Here’s two examples:

What impresses me the most with those plays is how they’re not reliant on a ball screen to free up the ball handler. Guys are moving without the ball and creating separation. That’s Spurs basketball. They get so much credit for making the extra pass, but I don’t think they get enough for how much they do beforehand.

Here are two threes from the Celtics. They both come from Boston’s basic set: a big above the break initiating the action with two wing players on the strong side.

As you can see, the action is limited to one half of the court with the two players on the weak side just spacing the floor. It’s effective, but I wonder if we’re getting the best out of our small ball lineups when we don’t move as much.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard’s brilliant up and under around Amir Johnson
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is a shape shifter sent by the Basketball Gods (Jared Weiss)

Who is he? Is he a dynamic point-forward a la Tracy McGrady? Is he a high-flying dynamo in the mold of Vince Carter? Is he a master of the high-post, capable of finding any shot or pass like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?

When you watch a full game from Kawhi Leonard, you see bits and pieces of every great player from your lifetime. Wednesday night, it was more apparent than ever.

Whether it was his unreal one-handed up and under to get around a perfect contest by Amir Johnson or a running hook across the lane when he put Marcus Smart on the block, Leonard did everything and anything in the Spurs’ win over the Celtics.

Great players dominate you even when you try to expose their weakness. Legendary players evolve their game when you try to identify their weakness. Leonard has steadily crossed over to the latter realm, where he completely alters his gameplan when his opponent thinks they’ve figure out how to marginalize him.

“Every time we got within striking distance, Kawhi Leonard made a huge play,” Brad Stevens said.

He gets a period in the game where he goes iso and works a few pick-and-rolls. Then Pop uses him as an off-ball shooting guard, coming off of pindowns or cross-screens to catch the ball on the elbow and take what the defense gives him. Whatever they offer up on the menu, he chows down and asks for seconds. When he is on defense, the whole floor is within his reach.

Leonard is a marvel of basketball brilliance. Every minute with him is a day in roundball paradise. See you next season, old friend.

Also shout out to Ryan Bernadoni aka @DangerCart for making the world a better place:

We miss you Isaiah (Alex Kungu): Yeah, I’m one of the guys that thinks eventually the Celtics are going to have to deal a couple of their guards and I’m also the person that believes that Isaiah Thomas could and should be one of those guards dealt. However, in terms of the now, the Celtics desperately need their 5’9 all-star, and there’s no other way around it. Defensive liability or not, Thomas’ ability to get in the lane and create offense out of nothing is something that can not be currently replicated by any other Celtic. Since Thomas went down with an injury, Horford has only shot over 40% from the field one time. Of course there may be more than one factor to that, but the one that’s most apparent while watching is the quality of his looks. Teams don’t collapse to the basket for Smart or Rozier the same way they do for Thomas, without that collapse, Horford is being forced into tougher shots than he was initially taking which has been part of the decline in efficiency. The luxury of having a player who was going to give you 20+ points in production regardless of the circumstances is one thing that some of us forgot how lucky we were to have. But with the Celtics in danger of being a flat .500, nothing will be more reliving than to be seeing Thomas come back just in time for Friday’s big matchup against the Hornets.

Are we worse this year? (Jeff Clark)

So I tweeted out an off-the-cuff reaction to watching the game last night that ended up getting a reaction that was larger than I expected, so I figured I'd address it more in depth in this space. First, here's the tweet.

A lot of people pointed out the injuries (which obviously I'm well aware of) and some essentially accused me of overreacting (which I'm frequently guilty of - especially on twitter). Forgive the over-introspection, but there's a lot going on in that tweet and I'm sure that's why it got a reaction.

I do love the improvements from guys like Bradley and Smart. I think Brown and Rozier are starting to contribute. I'm sure that once we get Thomas and Horford playing consistently on the same court the wins will come more often. So there's reason for optimism.

But are we "worse" than we were last year? Depends on what you define that as. We're currently 13-12 with a .520 winning percentage, ranking us as the 6th best in the East. Last year we finished the season at .585 and tied for 3rd in the East. Of course the team started off just 14-11 last year. So perhaps this team just gets off to slow starts and things will turn it around later.

Still, I have an underlying concern about this team and I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. When it boils down to it, I guess it has to do with my own expectations. They were heightened by the team's success last year, along with the signing of Al Horford and the preseason predictions that had the Celtics pegged as the 2nd best team in the league. We may still get to that point, but right now the record is what it is and we're left with vague excuses about injuries.

The maddening thing is that I feel like there are more issues than just injuries. But the injuries are an easy excuse and they may even mask some systemic issues that the team needs to work on but can't due to the lack of a full roster. So we wait and hope that the team can get healthy and figure things out on the fly.

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