One of the larger surprises of the playoffs has been the quality play of the Dallas Mavericks, short-handed underdog against the trendy Finals pick Los Angeles Clippers. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle made a point during Game 4 on Sunday to comment on why their offense has had such success: they’re at their best when they keep the game “as random as possible.”
For the Boston Celtics, their first-round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers had little randomness and a ton of predictability. Philly would pound the ball inside to Embiid as much as possible. Non-shooters would surround him. Set plays would be slow, easy to scout, and even easier to anticipate.
Their second-round series against the Toronto Raptors will be the polar opposite.
The Raptors thrive on randomness, pace, and having a multitude of options. No team spends more time in transition than them, forcing mismatches, and creating quality looks while barreling full-speed ahead at the rim. More importantly, no team had a higher percentage of catch-and-shoot attempts this year. The Raptors don’t just put pressure on the rim early, they use it to generate high-quality treys later.
Reigning Coach of the Year Nick Nurse doesn’t create these looks through a barrage of set plays, a highly-functional motion, or expert tactical strikes. He’s an in-game minimalist who relies more on the principles of his system and teaching guys how to play together.
Those principles provide structure within chaos; what looks like improv instead of a rehearsed offense is really narrowly tailored teaching points. It’s harder to see coming because it isn’t patterned, and as a result, it’s harder to stop.
Perhaps the most notable area of their principled approach comes from how the Raptors attack their drive-and-kick game. With Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet running a dual point guard machine and Pascal Siakam as a freakish athlete at the 4, penetration is easy to come by. All three shoot it, though, so while one has the ball in their hands, the other two are providing value on the perimeter. In fact, every Raptors role player (sans Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) is a reliable, above-average shooter for their position.
To keep the floor spread effectively, the Raptors teach a concept dubbed “penetrate-pass-pass”, which is exactly what it sounds like: a drive, followed by a pass to the perimeter, and an extra pass to another shooter.
NBA defenses are finely tuned machines. Most help defenders can rotate around and take away the first option. It’s the second one that breaks the back of the defense, forces difficult closeouts and creates advantages. By making an immediate extra pass on the catch, the Raptors are able to move the ball more quickly than the defense can rotate.
The result is open looks because of longer closeouts for scrambling helpers:
Notice how quickly those guys get rid of the ball on their extra pass. No sizing up their defender, not even a long pump fake, just immediate reversals to keep the ball moving.
The linchpin to all of this is that every player who touches the ball on the perimeter is a shooting threat. The Celtics can’t ignore anyone. Toronto’s spacing is immaculate and consistent: they always have corners and wings filled, which lends itself to easy reads and longer closeouts for the defense.
Re-penetration is an important facet of their offense too, but it just comes after the reversals. Initial drives collapse defenders, leading to passes to the perimeter. An immediate extra pass moves the ball like a hot potato and that ball movement can create an even larger, secondary driving lane.
The Raptors can go from pass-pass into a second rim attack, and the results are pretty potent:
All this talk can be boiled down to something very simple: the Raptors are incredibly unselfish. Shooting and playmaking is paramount, and everyone plays their role. They choose to focus on how to properly space the floor for the finish of plays as opposed to designing intricate sets that start the play.
So how can the Celtics slow this down?
A great deal of that will rely on the cat-and-mouse game of playing passing lanes and making the Raptors double clutch and hesitate. They can cause doubt and second thoughts by closing out into the passing lane instead of to the shooter himself.
In the videos above, the Raptors perimeter players are barely looking at the rim when they deliver extra passes. If a defender is within a certain proximity, they just assume he’ll close out to them and make the pass. By going into the passing lane, the Celtics may anticipate a pass to get a steal, or at least delay the ball movement and cause enough hesitation to reset their defense.
The plethora of strong, smart wing defenders the Celtics possess are capable in all these areas and have found success in these areas before:
Boston can’t do this every time. Toronto has far too many shooters who will be comfortable to launch from deep. But mixing in this concept multiple times? That’s what slows down the Raptors’ decision-making. It kills the randomness of their offense by, well, being random on defense.
Obviously, the simplest way to to short circuit Toronto’s pass happy offense is to cut it off at the point of initial attack and not require help. We put so much emphasis on rim protection, help defense, and switchability in the modern NBA, but the best way to defend any action is always to stifle it one-on-one.
If the Celtics can shut off the initial penetration, no helpers will rush to the rim, making the pass-pass portion of their scramble a moot point:
However, making the game that simple is wishful thinking. The Raptors are the defending NBA champions, feature multiple guys who can attack the rim and bigs who space the floor. They’re going to be tough to guard one-on-one, and are lethal at moving the ball against teams who over-help.
Brad Stevens needs to get his matchups right if they’re to minimize help at the rim. Part of that is taking away Lowry and VanVleet within their backcourt. The Kemba Walker and VanVleet pairing makes all the sense in the world as the two smallest, quickest guys on the floor. From there, the Celtics have some choices to make.
Jayson Tatum looked spry and used his length well in limited stretches on Lowry this year. The worry is that, by deploying him on such a high-usage player who is faster than him, Tatum will tire and be less efficient on offense, particularly late.
The unique toughness of Marcus Smart enables him to be a pest on someone like Siakam, undercutting his dribble and daring him to bang one-on-one in the post. Smart would also be great on the fifth option OG Anunoby, left as a designated helper who has the license to use his IQ to frequently be the guy who closes out into passing lanes.
Stevens needs to find the right balance between encouraging his players to take risks within the passing lanes and not needing to be there at all. His tactical coaching has always been strong, and their annihilation of the Raptors in the seeding contest was indicative of that.
Playoff basketball is different. Toronto will come with a new ferocity and attack the Celtics off the bounce while perfectly spacing their back-side to punish help. We’ll see how creative Stevens can get with his matchups, utilizing his bench and mixing in unique looks like zone or traps to keep the Raptors hesitating and a bit on their toes.