After a first-quarter full of errors and defensive lapses, no one could blame you if there was fear in your heart. The Los Angeles Lakers looked buoyed by the return of their King and took to the TD Garden’s parquet with a braggadocious swagger that saw them jump out to an early eight-point lead. Let’s keep it real here if it hadn’t been for Marcus Smart and Josh Richardson, who were a combined 8-of-11 in the opening period, the Celtics would have found themselves deep in the trenches.
However, it would seem that those early haymakers from the Lakers awoke a sleeping giant. Forgive me the Pokemon reference, but to begin the year, the Celtics have been reminiscent of Snorlax, capable of absorbing large amounts of damage without ever waking up from their slumber. Well, LeBron James and Anthony Davis managed to rattle that cage a little too hard, because when Snorlax awoke, he attacked with unpredictability and aggression until their opponent cracked under the pressure.
Part of the problem within that opening exchange was the Celtics being far too happy with allowing each other to self-create, which slowed down the offense and resulted in some head-scratching moments. Head coach Ime Udoka laid waste to the team's isolation-dependent offense by making numerous adjustments over the next three quarters, ensuring the Lakers were unable to settle into a defensive rhythm.
Udoka wants his Celtics team to play a fast, unselfish brand of basketball, but for this to happen, they must execute on their early offensive sets. Early in the second quarter, the Celtics went into a variation of a “Motion Strong” set, a play out of the San Antonio Spurs playbook. The usual motion strong offensive set features two reverse passes (moving the ball to the other side of the court) before flowing into a stagger screen on the wing. Ideally, the player curling off the stagger screen receives the ball, and either hits a rhythm jump shot or drives middle for a rim attempt.
Yet Udoka imprinted his own flair on how the Celtics ran this set, coming up the floor in a “wide” formation, which is when there’s a ball-handler on either wing and a big in the middle who sets a high drag screen for the weak-side ball handler. Tatum comes off the Enes Kanter screen, to receive the pass from Josh Richardson (reverse pass 1), then instantly feeds the rock to Kanter (reverse pass 2). So far we have a wide formation leading into the opening segment of a motion strong play, which means we now expect both Richardson and Tatum to set a stagger screen for the weakside corner. However, Dennis Schroder has already lifted out of the corner to set a pin-down for Josh Richardson, before receiving a screen himself from Tatum.
Despite the ingenuity of this offensive set, the Lakers defend well, and the possession ends up in a foul, sending Kanter to the line.
However, the reason we’re using this set as our first example is that it’s an amalgamation of the offense Udoka is implementing and contains numerous aspects of the Celtics' budding offensive identity.
In this one play, we have the wide formation, a drag screen, an inverted screen, a weak-side stagger screen (also known as strong), a screen-the-screener action, and some re-screening from the big man. We essentially saw a melting pot of the Celtics offensive schemes on a singular possession.
Throughout the final three quarters, these are the offensive principles the Celtics used to garner advantages on a possession-by-possession basis. Speaking after the game, Udoka told the media how his team was trying to get Tatum certain matchups for him to exploit, and one of the ways the team did that was by running inverted screens for him, which forces a mismatch when faced with a switch orientated defense.
“We liked some matchups, they were switching some things, we felt if we can keep certain guys off him, and keep some guys on him, he would have the advantage all night.”
Here’s another inverted screen possession from later in the second quarter, this time in the form of a wedge screen which was designed to get Tatum a mismatch in the mid-post. Tatum again gets the mismatch, and makes light work of his opponent as he uses his strength and footwork to create a driving lane at the rim.
Of course, Tatum wasn’t the only one scoring the ball, nor was he the only beneficiary of the Celtics new-look offense that’s starting to take shape. Take the following play as an example, where the Celtics run a double-drag screen, which results in Al Horford getting an easy roll to the rim.
Regardless of the beneficiary, or the type of offensive set the Celtics opted to run, the fact is, the team's offense is beginning to look like that of an NBA team who wants to compete. Sure, there are still the moments of isolation, or times when a high pick-and-roll turns into a heroic foray into the paint - that type of offense is part and parcel of basketball at this level. The types of offensive set we’ve taken a brief look at here aren’t the only offense Boston is running either, they’re just new additions that have added a structure in how the Celtics work for their buckets.
No doubt we’re still going to see the pin-down into dribble hand-off (Chicago), or its variation of a hand-off into a pindown (Miami), and every team in the league is running some variation of both Spain pick-and-rolls and pistol offense. Still, what we’re seeing, is the Celtics moving away from a scheme-based approach and into something more principle-based, where there’s the freedom to react to a defense without the need for a coach to bark specific sets from the sideline.
Principle-based offense is part-and-parcel of modernized coaching, with some of the league’s best teams adopting this approach. You only have to look at the system Mike Budenholzer has implemented in Milwaukee, or what Monty Williams has put in place over in Phoenix to understand the benefits this type of approach can have. However, unlike schematic approaches, adjusting to, and understanding the principles takes time, which would explain the Celtics' struggles in the opening weeks of the season.
Sure, no adjustment period can account for how poorly the team has shot in recent weeks, but it can explain the stagnation we’ve often seen. Regardless of what the team has looked like in the past, against the Lakers, we bore witness to a Celtics team entrenched in modern-day offense, which resulted in a blow-out of their most fierce rivals.
We’ve consistently spoken of the team’s identity beginning to form on the defensive end and oftentimes pointed to their victory over the Orlando Magic as the turning point. And now, something tells me we will look back on the Lakers games fondly, as the game when the Celtics awoke from their offensive slumber and the turning point began.