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How the Celtics created the best pick-and-roll offense in the NBA

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The Celtics are more than just their superstar point guard. The supporting cast has come together to make an elite offense.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest improvement of this year’s Celtics team is their half-court offense. Last season they ranked 22nd in the NBA, per Synergy. This season they’re risen all the way up to 3rd. The addition of Al Horford and ascendance of Isaiah Thomas have been huge. Today we’ll look at one of the best aspects of their half-court offense: the pick-and-roll. The Celtics are fantastic at executing it, but it’s more than just IT and Horford. The Celtics have utilized the diverse skill sets of everyone on the team. When you factor in passing, the Celtics have the highest offensive rating in the NBA when running the pick-and-roll.

The Guards

Thomas, Bradley, and Smart account for most of the team’s pick-and-rolls, and they all put their unique spin on running it.

Everything starts with Isaiah Thomas. He’s having a historic season, and the pick-and-roll is his go-to move. His patience with the ball, combined with his acceleration make him so tough to guard. Thomas has everything you want in a pick-and-roll guard: he can shoot from anywhere, he can finish at the rim, and he can pass, too. The beauty of his game really shines through with the variety of tricks he uses to score.

As the clips show, Thomas is successful however he approaches the pick. If the big defender gives him space after the pick, he’ll stop on a dime and bury the pull-up jumper. If his defender tries to ICE him away from the middle, Thomas is content to forgo the pick entirely and fly past the big. If the big jumps out to hedge, IT can split both defenders and drive to the basket. He can do it all.

Avery Bradley’s offensive game seems to improve every season. Even though he’s been hurt this year, he’s accounted for the second most pick-and-rolls on the team. While IT is more likely to go to the basket, Bradley thrives in shooting. Per Synergy, 76% of the time he takes a jump-shot after the pick. Bradley is a great mid-range and three-point shooter, so naturally he gravitates more to this style of play.

On first glance, Marcus Smart appears to be an awful pick-and-roll player. He ranks incredibly low as a ball-handler, landing in the 15th percentile per Synergy. But, that’s only for the plays that finish with him. Thankfully for Smart, there is another element to pick-and-rolls that allows him to take advantage of his skills.

Passing is what makes Boston’s pick-and-roll offense elite.

The Celtics have 3 of the top 4 pick-and-roll passers in the league, per Synergy. Thomas naturally uses the most possessions. He has the great ability to plunge into the heart of the defense, draw defenders, then kick out to an open shooter. Don’t underestimate his creative passes to the roll-man either.

Marcus Smart passes more often on his pick-and-rolls compared to IT and Bradley, per Synergy. It’s probably his best skill on offense, and it makes him a threat out of the pick-and-roll even though he can’t shoot. He’s adept at finding the roll-man in any situation.

His passing vision is awesome, and even reminiscent of Rondo at times. His improvement running the pick-and-roll has provided the Celtics with some much-needed playmaking outside of Isaiah Thomas.

The Roll-Men

This is an area where the Celtics are served well by having consistent bigs. They don’t have a freakishly athletic rim-runner like DeAndre Jordan. However, the Celtics have done just fine without a transcendent big man. Collectively, the Celtics rank third in the NBA at finishing pick-and-roll possessions, per Synergy. Most of the screener’s shots come out of the pick-and-pop variety. It fits with the makeup of the team. Boston’s guards can take advantage of less crowded driving lanes, and the big men get shots they’re comfortable with.

Horford is involved in so many aspects of the offense, so of course he’s the most used big in pick-and-roll situations. He’s replaced Jared Sullinger in that role, and it’s made a huge difference for the team. It doesn’t show up statistically, but he’s excellent at setting the screens. In an old Zach Lowe article, Kyle Korver gave this great quote about him:

Setting screens is an art... There are some big guys who just aren’t good at the pick-and-roll because they don’t know how to get their point guard open, or how to get themselves open. Al can do everything.

Horford can flatten a guy to create space for the guard, then bury a jumper after getting the ball back. He’s good when he rolls to the basket, but the pick-and-pop jumper is his calling card. Horford is a consistent mid-range shooter and solid from three, so he thrives in this setting.

Kelly Olynyk can surprise with advanced stats sometimes. You might not typically think of him in pick-and-roll situations, but he’s been exceptional this season. He’s ranking in the 94th percentile per Synergy. Olynyk has actually been super effective at rolling to the rim, but his real value comes in fading back to the three-point line. His pump-faking can be infuriating at times, but he’s one of the best 7-footers at shooting the three when he just fires away.

Plenty of Celtics fans are looking for an upgrade over Amir Johnson, but he’s been solid in this area. He’s another good screen setter, and a dependable finisher inside. Johnson is one of the few Celtics that primarily rolls to the basket, so he provides a nice change of pace. He may not get rewarded with a ton of shots, but he’s always willing to do the dirty work on offense.

The Shooters

The Celtics are really effective from spot-up shots coming from pick-and-rolls. After applying some (entirely arbitrary) possession cutoffs, the Celtics have an astounding 8 players in the top 50 in this category, per Synergy. A big driver of this is their improved three-point shooting this year, especially coming from the corners. Per basketball-reference, Boston ranks second in the league in corner-three percentage, at 43%. This is a huge improvement from their awful 34% shooting last season. This really helps the effectiveness of a pick-and-roll offense. A great pass from the guard doesn’t do any good if the spot-up guy can’t make the shot. Plus, a defense having to deal with dangerous shooters around the pick-and-roll can give an offense more space to operate.

Without a doubt, the biggest contributor to this is Jae Crowder. He’s been a monster on catch-and-shoot threes this season, hitting 40.4% per NBA.com. This skill has translated well into his role during pick-and-rolls. He takes more spot-up shots out of pick-and-rolls than any other Celtic. His excellent shooting this season has even drawn the attention of the national media. Crowder’s form has improved, and it’s payed immediate dividends for the Celtics.

This is unbelievable, but the best Celtic in spot-up shooting out of pick-and-rolls is actually Marcus Smart. This seems like an example of a relatively small sample (61 possessions), and an outlier in corner-three percentage (47%). But if he can keep shooting this well, it would be a nice addition to his offensive game. When defenders slag off of him to help defend the pick-and-roll action, then he’ll have a great chance to knock down open shots in the corner.

Now all this pick-and-roll stuff is great, but is it sustainable? The honest answer is “I don’t know”. Boston is shooting really well this year. It’s not crazy to expect a little regression from IT and the shooters on the team. But I wouldn’t be overly concerned. The backbone of Boston’s pick-and-roll offense is solid, so the floor should be set pretty high. They have good screeners, creative guards, and good outside shooters. With those talents working in sync, it’s no fluke that the Celtics are the best pick-and-roll team in the NBA.