From the moment the Boston Celtics announced Kyrie Irving would miss the start of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, the question was “How is Boston going to score?” Then Irving needed further surgery and things started to look really bleak for the Celtics offense. We’re talking as bleak as when The Nothing was destroying the world of Fantasia in The NeverEnding Story. But much like Bastian, Atreyu and Falkor, Boston worked as a team to cobble together a multi-faceted strategy to attack Milwaukee in a 113-107 overtime victory.
It started right off the jump, as Boston went to Al Horford on the game’s first play.
In many ways, the play was basketball’s simplest action. Jaylen Brown screens across for Horford, which threw Giannis Antetokounmpo off just long enough for Horford to establish position. Jayson Tatum stays anchored in the weakside corner. Terry Rozier remains on the wing where he entered the ball. Brown flashes to the top of the key and Aron Baynes delays a cut to the dunker spot until after Horford has all the space he needs to get a shot off.
By the time Horford is going into his shot, he has multiple options. If you freeze the clip at 4 seconds, you see Horford can shoot the hook (which he does), kick back to Rozier (as Eric Bledsoe came with a late dig down to help) or he could kick it out to Brown (who had space with Khris Middleton dropping way off him). This was just the first play of the game, but it helped set the tone for how Boston was going to try and create offense. Nothing fancy, but well executed.
Even on plays where Horford had one of his rare misses, the Celtics got what they wanted:
This one came late in overtime, with the Celtics nursing a one-point lead. Again, it’s a simple action. Horford/Rozier pick and pop. But what makes it work is where everyone else is. Marcus Morris in in the strongside corner, so Malcolm Brogdon can’t help off him. Brown is in the weakside corner, keeping Middleton out of the action. As Horford pops out, Tatum cuts hard to the rim, making it impossible for Tony Snell to provide help on Horford. Let the play run and you can see Rozier go hard off the screen, which causes Antetokounmpo to drop. If he doesn’t, Rozier gets a layup. If Snell helps off Tatum to run at Horford, Tatum gets a layup. Horford misses the three, but Antetokounmpo having to sprint out at him, takes Giannis out of the rebounding action. This allows Tatum to be in position to snag the offensive rebound.
Speaking of Tatum, here is the play right after he grabbed that offensive rebound:
What will be remembered and talked about is Tatum’s circus finish over Antetokounmpo. But look at the spacing as Tatum starts his drive. Horford stays on the block, so Antetokounmpo can’t leave him right away. Rozier and Brown each stay in the corners, leaving their defenders unable to help. And Morris stays on the wing, with Snell unable to dig down. Only Antetokounmpo’s incredible quickness and length forces Tatum to make a tough finish.
As fun as that shot was, this was Tatum’s best shot of the game:
Again, the Celtics kept it simple. Tatum starts in the corner and gets the screen from Shane Larkin to get to the right block with the much smaller Brogdon on him. Brown enters the ball to Tatum as soon as he hits the block. The bigs, Morris and Greg Monroe, both stay above the foul line. This leaves Brogdon on an island with no possible help coming. Tatum hits Brogdon with one dribble and his left shoulder, then turns and his the fadeway over his right shoulder. That Boston would run the play for the rookie Tatum, in the fourth quarter of his first ever playoff game, shows the faith and trust that Brad Stevens puts in his players that they’ll deliver when put in the position to do so.
The Celtics other prized youngster, Brown, delivered as well. This first shot came when the Bucks had ripped off 11 straight points and were in danger of taking control of the game:
Boston once again keeps it simple, but with a wrinkle. When guarded by Antetokounmpo this year, Brown and Tatum had both struggled to get any traction offensively. On 54 plays where Antetokounmpo had guarded either young Celtic, they had combined for six points. Six! It isn’t likely that either was all of a sudden going to have much success going at Antetokounmpo in the playoffs. So, the Celtics made it a priority to force switches.
On the above play, Stevens trusts Brown to make the correct play. Brown runs pick and roll with Horford, forces the switch between Antetokounmpo and Henson, while the other six players remain completely on the opposite side of the court. Without the Greek Freak’s otherworldly length and quickness to contend with, Brown patiently backs it out to where Henson isn’t comfortable guarding him. Then he calmly drains a mildly contested three to snap the run. By keeping everyone else away and just playing two-on-two basketball, Boston gets a great shot when they badly needed one.
The Celtics also got Brown one of his easiest baskets off what seemed like a broken play, but was really by design:
As you can see, Milwaukee’s defensive matchups are a mess to start this play. Horford is guarded by Snell in the mid-post area. Antetokounmpo is completely out of the play covering Tatum at the arc. This is because the play immediately prior to this was the jumpball to start overtime. Because Boston went small to start OT, they had Tatum take the tip. He’s not going to out jump Antetokounmpo, but no other Celtic is either, so Stevens takes advantage to start overtime with a mismatch if they win the tip. That resulted in the coverage you see in the clip. Horford heads toward the elbow against the much smaller Snell, drawing immediate help from Middleton. Antetokounmpo can’t come because that would leave Tatum open for a three. Brown and Morris just hang out on the baseline, while Rozier spots up on the opposite wing. Morris plants himself against Brogdon and he almost ends up making the defensive play by knocking the ball away from Brown, who catches it and gets the easy finish. This mismatch was created off the jumpball, which caused the double to come, while Tatum and Rozier space appropriately, leaving Brown for the easy layup off the find from Horford.
The last clip was one of the biggest shots of the game, as Terry Rozier drains what could have been the game-winner. Initially it looks like Rozier shakes Bledsoe right out of the gym with the crossover, but a closer looks shows us more:
The Bucks have the matchups they want, but Boston has the spacing they want. Tatum stays strongside corner, which keeps Snell at home. All of the action is going the other way. Brown comes off the baseline screen from Horford then a second screen at the elbow-extended area from Morris. Brogdon gets through the Horford screen easily, then the Bucks switch the second screen with Middleton picking up Brown.
The challenge comes in with Bledsoe, who claimed after the game “I heard a play call and I was trying to play the stunt,” Bledsoe said. “He did a great job of reading it and he made a big shot. But Khris had my back.” You can clearly see Bledsoe trying to cheat towards Brown, which was unnecessary, because Middleton had it covered. Fortunately for the Celtics, Rozier recognized this as well. He crosses over and leaves Bledsoe guarding a ghost at the top of the key, while Rozier calmly drains the most wide-open big shot he’ll probably ever take.
For Boston to succeed this postseason, they have to work to create offense and they have to be smarter than their opponents. Despite flashes at times, none of the Celtics are going to regularly create much offense one-on-one. This is where the team misses Irving the most. When things break down, who is going to bail them out? Despite some incredible shot-making at times during Game 1, that question largely remains unanswered. By putting themselves in position to get good looks through execution, the Celtics can avoid having to create one-on-one. For the first game of the playoffs, they were able to do so and it made all the difference.