After over a month of deliberating and speculation on the subject, we finally got a good look at Boston’s new offensive system during their 94-82 win against the Charlotte Hornets in their preseason debut. Although Brad Stevens didn’t call many plays, there’s much that can be gleaned from how the team played on the attacking end of the floor in their first organized game together.
For one, the fact that Brad Stevens didn’t call many plays is one giant indicator of how much better the Celtics will be on the offensive end this season. On average, when plays broke down last year, the team would be limited to either an Isaiah Thomas isolation play or an ill-advised Marcus Smart bricked 3-pointer. There weren’t many players who could create their own shot, so offense seemed like a chore. This wasn’t reflected by statistics; the team actually finished in the top-10 in offensive rating, pace, and points per game.
You can attribute that to the historically great season that Isaiah Thomas posted as well as Brad Stevens’ great coaching. Individually, though, the team lacked shot creators. All summer we’ve wondered what Boston’s offense would look like now that we have a team full of shot creators. What was the result?
It was beautiful. Here’s an example:
One of Cleveland’s most interesting and deadly plays was the 1-3 pick-and-roll with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Either one of those players could function as the ball handler, and both are so offensively talented that defenses couldn’t commit fully to either one, leading to exploitable mismatches. Al Horford is no LeBron James, but he is most certainly a versatile offensive player.
In the play above, we see Irving and Aron Baynes double screen for Horford who initiates the play as a ball handler. From there, it turns into a series of touch passes and hand offs, leading to an on-the-money pass to a cutting Gordon Hayward. From there, Hayward proceeds to drive hard to the basket, collapsing Charlotte’s defense until four Hornets are sucked into the paint. After penetrating deep into the paint, Hayward utilizes his passing ability to kick the ball out to a wide-open Al Horford who hits the open shot.
All five players on the court contributed to this look. For one, Baynes set a really strong screen which opened up just a little bit more space for Horford (the power forward running a pick-and-roll!). Also, his hitting a 15-footer earlier meant that the defense couldn’t leave him too open, so his presence opened up the floor slightly. Jaylen Brown being a solid floor spacer and strong cutter meant that Nic Batum couldn’t cheat off of Brown to help too much on the Hayward drive. You can even see him do a double take as he considers the cost/reward dynamic.
This play isn’t as effective without Hayward’s offensive ability, and his hard drive and passing ability are what created the open shot. His driving to the basket took the attention of almost the entire defense, and that created just enough time and space to kick out to a wide-open shooter, Horford, where it all started. If the defense rotated quick enough, the other option would be for a quick pass to an equally wide-open Kyrie Irving, a 40% shooter from beyond the arc. That’s really, really good.
These are the types of looks that we can get accustomed to with so many shot creators sharing the floor. The best part of that play is that I doubt this was a set play called. Horford, the power forward—I can’t stress this enough—took the ball down the court to initiate the fast break. This is what versatility looks like, and it looks beautiful.
But wait. There’s more! There were so many good examples to choose from because of how prevalent good ball movement was in Monday’s game, but here’s another play:
Here, Marcus Smart initiates with a pass to Horford in the high post. Horford proceeds to bring the ball to Hayward in a dribble hand off. Again, Hayward’s hard drive collapses the defense after which he kicks it out to a wide-open, but tentative, Jayson Tatum. The rookie passes up an open look to Irving who takes the ball to the middle of the court. Horford’s movement out of the paint in addition to Irving’s motion toward the paint leads to confusion. Three defenders are guarding Horford at the rim, but none are guarding Horford from about 15 feet out.
Horford is criminally open here, and it’s unfortunate that he missed the shot. Again, all five players contributed to this open look. Marcus “It’s a new me” Smart demands some attention in the corner in addition to his initiating the play. Hayward, again, facilitated the play with his hard drive and excellent passing. Tatum, although hesitant to shoot, did the play a favor by making a quick decision to pass to Irving immediately. Irving was Irving, meaning he did Kyrie Irving things, and Horford’s versatility was present throughout the entire play, even though he missed the shot.
Do you remember how we collectively drooled at how beautiful the San Antonio Spurs’ offense was in 2014 (although it has been visually pleasing for the longest time now)? We’re not the looking at the Spurs here, but this team is going to be up there in terms of attractive offenses. The numbers should reflect this, too; Boston will likely have a top-5 (maybe top-3) offense this year.
I can hear the “it’s only preseason” crowd shifting uncomfortably in their seats, and I get it. But there are real, tangible trends that we can discern from how their offense looked. It’s incredible that a team with only four returning players can execute this kind of action so early, but at the same time, it’s not so surprising because this roster has more gifted offensive players this year than last. Defense is an entirely different question, but they looked solid on that end as well. Basically, based on this one preseason game, I’ve determined that the Celtics are the best team in the NBA and we’re winning the championship.
I’m lying, but they’re going to be really good this year and they’ll be ready to capitalize on any shifts in the NBA status quo, should that happen. This elite-looking offense is a good indication that they’re knocking on the door. What kind of plays are you looking forward to this year?