Spacing has been an issue for this Celtics team to begin the season. Ime Udoka's reliance on the veteran guard/wing rotation of Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder, and Josh Richardson has been uninspiring in terms of offensive versatility despite the obvious upside on the defensive end.
Sure, things have been bad on both ends of the floor. Still, in recent games, the defense has taken an enormous stride forwards, catapulting itself into 10th in defensive rating thanks to their stellar performance against the Miami Heat.
"I wouldn't say that's the prototype offensively, and defensively, it's exactly what we want it to look like. We knew they would come out in the second half, throwing punches, being physical, and we had to match that physicality and keep our composure. We got a little rattled there and got some technicals, things of that nature. Defensively, yes, offensively, we still want to improve on our numbers. We shot 40% from three and the field. Gotta get that up, but to hold them 34% and 22% from three, that's the defensive blueprint we want to have," Udoka said after the Celtics held the Heat to just 78 points off the back of a 25-3 run in the second quarter.
Here's the thing: stopping your opponent from scoring is a trait you can hang your hat on all season long, as it's rooted in effort, hustle, and communication, but if you can't get the ball to fall at a respectable clip on offense, then your efforts are all for naught. Here's where the Celtics' next hurdle lies, scoring the ball consistently and efficiently, a problem that has blighted them since the opening tip of the season.
It's no secret that Jayson Tatum's slow start has hindered the Celtics' offensive production; he's currently second in the NBA for field goal attempts with 22.3 per game but ranks second to last in conversion rate among players who average 17 or more shots. Many of Tatum's problems stem from his struggles finishing around the rim and how easily defenses are loading up the middle of the floor to stifle his bread-and-butter offense, which improved spacing would help remedy.
For the Celtics spacing to improve, the team needs to enhance the quality of shooters taking to the floor. Luckily, Boston has a sharpshooter who can quickly solve some of their issues off the bench and did as much against the Heat on Thursday evening. After starving for playing time to start the season and even collecting three DNP-CDs, Aaron Nesmith provided the Celtics with an offensive punch they've looked so desperate for while stretching the Heat's defense to allow Jaylen Brown and Tatum room to operate in the mid-range.
Miami is one of the best teams in the league at taking away driving opportunities from the perimeter. Their defenders pinch in to the elbows whenever a ball-handler penetrates, and they have no issues loading up the paint to kill an isolation play or rim-roll from a big man. The best way to punish their defense is by getting the defense in rotation, kicking out, and draining a three. It forces them to adjust their coverages and ultimately creates opportunities down the line.
Nesmith provided that three-point threat on South Beach, and as seen in the play above, punished the Heat for helping off him on a Dennis Schroder drive. Hit your first shot, and they'll tip their hat to you; hit a second, and they'll respect you, a third? Well, now they will fear you. From there, you have the defense where you want them and can begin to manipulate them as you implement your game plan.
Here's that game plan in full effect. Jaylen Brown initiates a second side action following a screen from Al Horford, and then a quick two passes lead to an open shot for Romeo Langford in the corner. The devils in the details, though. The Heat are set up in their inverted 2-3 defense, where the wings and big man guard the strong-side perimeter and the guards take on the weakside duties. Nesmith, who has already burned Miami on multiple threes, is guarded by Tyler Herro. At the same time, Duncan Robinson is the low-man in the "weakside I," meaning it's his responsibility to provide help on any drive roll or cut to the rim.
As soon as the ball hits the second side, watch how quickly Herro closes out on Nesmith and the room it generates both in the middle and to the far side corner. That's what spacing does for your offense. An unselfish pass from Nesmith allows Langford to get his shot off with plenty of time and results in an easy three points. Unselfish ball movement, spacing, pace — this is as close to the brand of offense Udoka has spoken about that we've got.
Of course, one good game doesn't insure that Nesmith's presence within the rotation will solve all of Boston's woes, and just because his shot was falling against Miami doesn't mean it's going to be a consistent threat. But you have to play him to find out, there's no glory in playing it safe. With his 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting (3-of-5 from deep), Nesmith has given Udoka plenty to think about as he continues to refine his offense.
"We've watched him playing five-on-five, knocking down shots, doing what he did all preseason and Summer League. It was just some first game jitters, and he's a young guy that hasn't played a ton of basketball, rushed some things early,” Udoka said. “It wasn't just that he played poorly. It's that other guys had played well. Grant really played well early, Romeo played well early, so we went with that line-up and our veterans. So he got squeezed there a little bit for minutes, but always had confidence in him. He's a guy we know can light it up and bring us a spark off the bench, and being solid on defense was an added bonus there."
And now, with Jaylen Brown out for the Celtics game against the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, Nesmith has the perfect opportunity to continue staking a claim for a more prominent role within the rotation.
Suppose the sophomore wing provides a similar impact against Dallas. In that case, Josh Richardson will be looking over his shoulder as the energetic sharpshooter pushes for more game time. In turn, we might see the spacing the second unit desperately needs to succeed moving forwards.