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Celtics small ball offense is evolving

Against Boston’s small ball lineups, opposing teams have started to switch everything. The Celtics have answered.

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

In his pre-game interview with NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine before the Celtics’ game in Cleveland, Brad Stevens reiterated what kind of defenses opposing teams have started to employ, particularly when the Celtics play small. He talked about how the Knicks--a team basically made up of a dozen power forwards--sold out against Boston’s offensive actions by switching at every position in order to stay in front of the ball.

“They played a unique style to what they normally do,” Stevens said after Friday night’s nail biter against their Atlantic Division rivals. “They switched 1 through 5 on every screen, pick and roll, ball screen, and off the ball screen.” He expected a similar approach from the Cavaliers, but felt confident heading into Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Ball movement and player movement is nice, but if teams are going to sit back and switch on all your actions, it can be all for not. The moves have to be deliberate, constantly putting the defense in compromising situations and forcing players to calculate and make decisions on the fly.

Right off the bat, the Celtics gave one of their best playmakers the ball. Gordon Hayward would finish the night with 39 points on 17-for-20 shooting and 8 assists on simple actions like this. To put the defense in a vulnerable position, Boston effectively runs Hayward off two picks, a down screen and a dribble hand off. That involves three defenders that all have to read and react each other’s movements. Hayward reacts quicker than Cleveland does collectively and hits the runner.

But it’s not always about speed. Sometimes, particularly as the game progresses, it’s more about patience. Check out Kemba Walker turning the corner on a simple pick-and-roll with Daniel Theis. Walker isn’t attacking the rim and trying to beat Tristan Thompson off the bounce. He’s deliberate with his dribble and as soon as Thompson commits to the switch, Kemba can either hit Theis with the lob or can the pull-up from 10-feet.

Marcus Smart changes the pace against Kevin Love and fakes an aggressive drive. That forces Love to commit and Theis is there for an alley-oop. Notice the double action again. This time, it’s Walker with the DHO and then Theis with the hard PnR to follow. Defenses need to know exactly how their playing those sets, but time and time again on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers didn’t.

This is where it gets from. As games progress, teams get lulled by seeing the same actions over and over again. Here, Larry Nance Jr. is expecting the dribble hand off between Robert Williams and Hayward. He’s anticipating switching on to Timelord as Love gets Hayward. Instead, Hayward cuts back door and Williams hits him with a pretty one-skip bounce pass for the layup.

Finally, here’s some next level stuff. It looks like another pin down screen leading into a dribble hand off (again, more double action), but there’s a third little wrinkle in there. After Walker initiates the offense and gets it to Williams, he runs interference in the lane. That extra body clogs up the paint, slows down Thompson, and allows Hayward to easily attack the rim. For small ball to continue working, the Celtics will need to continue developing chemistry together and knowing where teammates like the ball and how they’ll react to defensive adjustments.

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