And there we have it. Celtics basketball is officially back. In a pre-season game that saw every healthy roster member log minutes, we got our first glimpse into the style of basketball coach Brad Stevens will look to implement once the regular season gets underway.
The good news: Regardless of the lineup, the Celtics went with a high pick-and-roll game, as they looked to free up shooters or pressure the defense with an encouraging drive and kick game. Boston found success in penetrating the Sixers defense, a skill that was in clear need of improvement to end last season.
The bad news: the Celtics couldn’t find consistency from deep, shooting just 28.2% on 11-for-39 from beyond the arc. Despite their inability to knock down their open looks, an encouragingly large amount of opportunities came from the Celtics regularly hitting their man in space.
Above is a beautiful possession, with multiple Celtics working the ball around, probing the defense, and looking for the best available shot. Alas, rookie Aaron Nesmith is unable to convert from the corner. However, the unselfishness and ability to read the defense should bode well once the regular season is underway.
Here’s another example, this time with Jayson Tatum on the floor.
Savvy passing was only one way the Celtics were creating scoring opportunities. Stevens took a page out of his 2018-19 playbook, running multiple dribble handoffs above the break to generate shooting space or driving lanes.
Interestingly, the Celtics ran ten dribble handoff actions against the Sixers, with Grant Williams initiating seven of them. Williams displayed an impressive off-ball IQ when running these plays, knowing when to roll into the paint or pop out onto the perimeter. Stevens initially started utilizing dribble handoff schemes into his offense when Al Horford was donning the green and gold. In Williams, Stevens may see some similarities that he can use down the stretch.
The beauty of incorporating handoffs around the three-point line is the defense having to account for them when defending half court sets. The Celtics took clear advantage of this on the below play, as Simmons and Embiid both anticipate Tatum receiving the passing, allowing Grant Williams to drop his shoulder and get an easy finish around the bucket.
Despite the narrative that the Celtics still lack the required size at the five position to deal with behemoths, they do possess the versatility to switch up their offensive flow. Here is a Timelord Time Warp from above the break to find the open Jaylen Brown on the left side corner.
For all the ball movement the Celtics displayed, there were also times where players chose to express their individual improvements, with multiple Celtics finishing at the rim in traffic. There was a theme to how those players succeeded when driving the lane. Brian Scalabrine noted, “this is something the Celtics must practice because they’re all so good at getting their man on their hip and keeping him there on the way to the basket.”
Despite this being a preseason game and the Celtics failing to win, the team found a way to keep the ball moving and rarely produced ill-advised plays. However, for all their offensive promise, the Celtics still struggled to take care of the ball, ending the game with 19 total turnovers. Misplaced passes and weak dribbles riddled the Celtics bubble experience, and this seems to have carried over into their preseason, too.
There is still another preseason game to go, but with the season approaching rapidly, Brad Stevens was quick to point out the amount of work yet required to be ready for Opening Night in a week. “I don’t think tonight changed my opinion much,” Stevens said. “We have a lot of work to do. I’ve known that since the first time we stepped on the court.”
For now, Stevens will dissect film with his team, as he looks to reduce their “over dribbling” and lapses in concentration across both sides of the floor.
Friday will be another test of this young Celtics roster, as they face Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets to finish off their pre-season preparations. If the team can continue to move the ball like they did last night, while cutting down on their mistakes and tentativeness, their offense should be ready when the NBA season gets underway.