Discussing the X’s and O’s of the NBA season feels strange in the midst of a league-wide absence and a national period of social distancing. While everyone tries their hand at TikToks from home or irresponsibly heads to the beach for spring break, there’s a need for some normalcy. So in that light, normal for me is talking about the brilliant set plays and packages from Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
Stevens has always been lauded for his ability to tactically dissect an opponent, dating back to his days at Butler with a skinny Gordon Hayward. He puts his guys in positions to succeed and, specifically on inbounds plays, gets the ball to scorers in a scoring area.
Their sideline inbounds packages are no different. Things start with Jayson Tatum taking the ball out, and he’s in what’s known as the danger position. An old adage in basketball is “watch out for the inbounder.” While Tatum isn’t involved in the initial movement since he’s stationary on the sideline, he’s the focal point of the set’s design.
The first and most difficult to guard action is a pick-and-pop between Tatum and another wing, where Tatum will breeze through the screen as the defenders encircle the ball, to get an open 3-point attempt:
Tatum has perfected this shot, particularly moving to his left. He has great footwork and balance. But let’s focus on the design rather than the shot-making for a second. Stevens has that entire backside cleared out so Tatum can either catch-and-shoot or turn into the mid-post and isolate. The action is meant to isolate him.
The reason such a play is called a “ghost action” is because the screen is, well, imaginary and invisible. While it’s a pick-and-pop by design, Tatum never slows down enough to set the screen. Defenders will, by habit, slow themselves to anticipate a ball screen. By going fast when others go slow, the Celtics gain an advantage.
Tatum screens for a usually smaller guard here, which is also by design. If his man sniffs out the action and barely stops to guard the pick-and-roll, Tatum will be open for a jumper. If he doesn’t, he could force a switch and take a smaller guard into the post. When Tatum isn’t in the game, Jaylen Brown or even Hayward can fill this position and execute in a similar manner.
Playbook design isn’t about just getting a compilation of awesome plays and running them at different times. Disguise is a vital element here, too. The Celtics keep opponents on their toes by running different plays out of the same formation. Every time they line up for a sideline inbound, they’ll get to the same spots. Tatum will take it out, the center goes to the top of the key, point guard opposite block and so on.
From that same formation, the Celtics have another option that is just as lethal and provides the same type of shots: a mismatch post or layup for Tatum, or an open 3-pointer for someone else:
Whether Tatum, Brown or Hayward, the Celtics will have someone with a size advantage take the ball out and call this play. Once the ball is reversed, that player comes off a shuffle screen, or an angled back screen, to the block and digs in to brace for one-on-one battle.
As the video shows, there are always counters available and ways to catch the defense cheating the play. Opposing teams are not idiots; they understand these concepts within their playbook. Assistants who lead the scout on the Celtics will call out to stay attached to Tatum and anticipate what play is coming.
However, that’s what the final three examples illustrate: the Celtics stay a step ahead. On the shuffle down set, the Celtics use the inbounder as a decoy to get Kemba Walker open in a screen-the-screener set. In the last one, they use the clutter from teams that jam the inbounder to spring Walker free for a dribble handoff. It’s all connected, all by design and all simply brilliant.
Watch out for the inbounder!