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The Read & React: hello, #1 seed

It’s March 26th and the Celtics are the favorite for the top seed in the East. Is this real life?

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Amir Johnson fresh when it matters (Keith P. Smith): Last year, when he was the team's "big" signing, many bemoaned Amir Johnson's' inability to play big minutes. Over and over, everyone wondered "Where's Amir?" if the Celtics were getting hammered inside. By the time the season was wound down and the playoffs started, Brad Stevens plan for Johnson was clear. He managed his minutes to have him fresh and ready for when it mattered most.

This year has been more of the same, but to an even greater extent. Johnson has played in 73 of 74 games, but averages just a touch over 20 minutes per game. Considering he's Boston's most rugged post defender and one of the team's best rebounders, it might have even cost the Celtics a win or two along the way. But none of that will matter in a few more weeks when the playoffs are in full swing.

Johnson's chronicly sore ankles don't afford him the opportunity to play 30+ minutes every game. The game vs Miami with 14 points on 6-6 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes is a perfect example of how ready to go he is. Once again, Brad Stevens has perfectly managed Amir Johnson to be able to get the most out of him late in the season.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Wrinkles to keep IT and the offense going (Keith P. Smith): A major concern for the Celtics since they made the playoffs two years ago has been "What happens if/when teams take Isaiah Thomas away in the playoffs?" The answer has been: Nothing good. Nothing good at all. The presumed solve for this problem has been to get a second superstar. The Celtics don't have that, but what they do have is a very smart coach, who adjusted things to make it that much harder to take Thomas away.

Brad Stevens has done a couple of things to help Thomas. First up was to start the of the actions that much wider and further from the basket. This is aided by having shooters, skilled passers and ball handlers at the big positions, especially Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk. When Thomas is forced to give it up, he gives it to someone who can move the ball and keep things going. It doesn't stick and wait for a ball handler to circle back and regroup.

As for IT himself, he's virtually impossible to stop when he has that much space. He can get to where he wants by a combination of his speed, his ability to slip through small spaces (aided by his size) and his ball handling ability. Teams have to trap him or he's getting in the paint or free for jumper. When the team was running actions closer to the arc, other teams shrunk the floor and took away his space to work. Now everything is far more spread out.

The other thing Stevens has done is that the Celtics play with incredible floor balance. Rarely do they muck things up with poor spacing. If the action starts on the right side., you can be sure there will be a player on the opposite wing and one in each corner. As the play develops, the player from the corner moves towards the paints as Thomas comes off the screen, depending on where the help comes from. If the corners stay covered, the opposite wing cuts. The screen man either takes Thomas' place by popping back or he rolls if all three other defenders stay tight to their men. The fact that every big can pass on the move makes it easy for them catch on the roll and finish themselves or find a cutter.

Because of all of the injuries, it took a little bit to come together. Much like the name of this article, the offense is highly based on read and react principles. That involves all five guys knowing what the others are doing. Now that the Celtics have been together for a while, things are starting to work as well as we all hoped they would. A really good defensive team could still take Thomas away, but Boston has made changes to make that harder. Even if it does happen, they have other players ready to step up. If those players will or not when it matters most, remains to be seen. But they have the option this year, as opposed to the previous two years when everything went to pot when IT was taken away.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Smart plays (Bill Sy): This quote sums up Marcus Smart perfectly:

Smart made one shot tonight, a three-point buzzer beater at the end of the first quarter that was, for what it’s worth, so Marcus Smart because it stemmed the tide of a Heat run and gave the Celtics some momentum heading into the second, but it was this play in crunch time that will join a handful of other plays throughout the season that continue to be staples of the Cobra:

Taylor Snow’s write-up of it over at Celtics.com has the perfect picture of his offensive rebound. Dragic is pulling his right arm down and the 7’0 Whiteside is poised to grab the board and yet it’s Marcus that gets enough of it with his left hand, wrestle around in a tiny kitchen of Heat players, and whip the ball through a sea of defenders on a skip pass to IT.

The second part of that Stevens’ quote on Smart was, ““he’s really smart and he’s really tough. And those two things mean more than any points or no points that he could score. So I don’t even really think about it. I just want him to continue being a leader, being contagious and competing.” Forget that he was 1-for-5 but had nine assists tonight; beyond the counting numbers and even the analytics that are supposed to measure the immeasurable, it’s the mindset that makes Smart so important to this team and the franchise going forward.

I have to echo Hardwood Houdini’s sentiment here and even go a little further: Stevens is the perfect coach for Smart and maybe more so, Boston is the perfect city. Celtics fans understand all the little things it takes to win basketball games (I thought Scal did a great job describing that extra 10% between trying and tanking) and the city really values a blue collar attitude when it comes to that type of work.