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Boston’s most lethal offensive weapon: the Al Horford-Kyrie Irving pick-and-pop

There’s one combination that has repeatedly produced results that Boston will continue to use amid their offensive struggles.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve heard of the pick-and-roll. Now, get ready for the pick-and-pop!

Boston’s struggles on the offensive end have been well documented over the last few weeks. They’re terrible! For now, at least, but terrible nonetheless. For some context, they’re 27th in the NBA in offensive rating as of November 9th. They’re ranked 19th in pace and 25th in points per game. The defensive numbers are a lot more forgiving, but offensively? Shield the eyes of the children.

However, in the depths of despair, Boston has found one go-to play in times of need. After a slow start to the season, Kyrie Irving has emerged as the de facto first option. I’ve come to this conclusion on the strength of the fact that he’s literally the only one who will make open shots at this point.

Al Horford has long been the unsung hero of this team. While Irving and Jayson Tatum wow the crowds with flashy handles, smooth finishes and off-court “drip” as the kids are calling it, Al Horford is always there solidly supporting the team with his mundane yet effective skill set. Irving and Horford have used the best parts of their game to combine to form a super weapon: the Irving-Horford pick-and-pop.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re unfamiliar, pick-and-rolls are similar to the pick-and-pop in initial structure and setup. The ball handler will call for a screen and the screener will pick a side to get into position. The difference comes after the screen is set. Instead of rolling hard to the basket, the screener will flare out to the 3-point line, awaiting a pass and spacing the floor.

I’d argue that as the league becomes more 3-point centric (seriously, look at the point totals so far this season), the pick-and-pop will be more popular than ever. Rarely, though, do teams have the personnel to make it work the way it does with the Celtics.

Al Horford is the picture-perfect big for this. Last year, he shot a career-high 43% from the 3-point line which is absolutely phenomenal considering he started shooting 3-pointers just 5 years ago. Although he’s started out the year shooting just 30%, water will find its level eventually. He’s the team’s best passer, averaging 4 assists per game this year after averaging 4.7 last year. He was made to run the pick-and-pop.

And Kyrie Irving was made to run the pick-and-pop with Al Horford. His offensive gravity is reason alone, but his ability to pass out of the pick-and-pop might be his most developed passing ability. There’s also that thing he does when he shoots the ball and makes it a lot of times. Over the last 5 games, Irving has averaged 29.4 points and 5.2 assists (a team-high) while shooting 55.9% from the field and 53% from 3-point range. That’s quite good, and it checks all the boxes to run an elite pick-and-pop.

Here’s a look at a successful play from the game against the Bucks last week (a game in which Boston torched Milwaukee over and over with this same play).

Look at the space this combo creates. The reason Brook Lopez is sagging so far into the paint isn’t just because he’s a bad defender (which is also true). It’s because stepping up even a little is what would give Irving that one step he needs to get to the rim for an easy layup. Who would stop him? Ersan Ilysasova?

Additionally, Horford set that screen in semi-transition, so it functioned almost as a drag screen of sorts. For that reason, Lopez sank even further to the paint because he expected Horford to run straight there. This sequence is a great, replicable way to get easy offense early in the shot clock. It’s not as effective when the opposing half court defense is set up, but a step down from “unbeatable” is still really, really good.

From the same game, here’s another look at a similar play within the half court offense with Hayward involved as the ball handler instead:

Although Horford missed the shot, he’s still unbelievably wide open. Like, absurdly wide open. Some of that is bad defense, but there’s also the “Hayward isn’t 100% back yet” aspect. Once he is, the Hayward-Horford pick-and-pop has the potential to be almost as elite as it is for Irving and Horford. A team like Golden State is probably better equipped to handle a play like this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its uses, especially in moderation. Also, the list of teams with a Draymond Green is pretty low.

This play is also incredibly versatile beyond the scope of a simple pick-and-pop. Here’s a clip against the Denver Nuggets (another really good team with a really immobile big defensively):

This isn’t quite a pick-and-pop, but instead, it’s what’s referred to as a pitch-and-follow. Horford has the ball in a stationary position, throws a pass to Irving with the momentum and Horford sets the screen where he was already standing. Irving’s momentum takes him to the middle of the floor and isolated against Nikola Jokic. It leads to a tough mid-range shot, but that’s a good shot for Irving, especially considering the context and spacing of the floor.

Horford didn’t necessarily pop all the way back, but he did back away for just enough time to get Irving isolated before running to attempt to crash the glass. This combination between these two players is so destructive that it allows them to tinker even further. In the following two clips, you’ll see Irving and Horford execute a slip-and-pop, where Horford runs up to set a screen and slips away before making the body contact that constitutes a pick.

Just the threat of the pick-and-pop is scary enough for defenses to over-commit, allowing Horford to pop out anyway.

Irving’s defender likely expected contact as Irving essentially dove to the rim. Horford was in position to make that choice, but he elected to fade out to the 3-point line and was rewarded.

In this play, at a time when Boston coughed up a massive lead and needed a basket, Horford just running up to Irving was enough to spook Denver into switching. Jokic isolated on Irving is baby food for Uncle Drew.

Irving’s lethal offensive game creates gravity. Horford’s versatility emphasizes that gravity. This leads to the threat that opposing defenses have to keep in mind every time Horford goes to set a screen for Irving. It’s a perfect match, and it’s a play that’s been even further developed after the pair created strong chemistry last season.

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

Boston’s offense is starved for reliable options. By picking spots to run the pick-and-pop between Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, they can get crucial buckets at crucial times. It’s still early in the season, so Boston has a lot of time to figure out its other options (how about those contested midrange shots, eh Tatum?).

But when they need a shot to go down, this is the one non-ISO option they can comfortably depend on.

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