Sitting in the TD Garden’s media room, Brad Stevens addressed the waiting crowd on Zoom, following arguably the Boston Celtics’ best game of the season against Toronto. After dishing out thirty assists, it was inevitable that the press conference turn to Boston’s ball movement:
“I would say that the two areas that have kept me up at night are the lack of ball movement and inconsistencies of our defense. I would like to string a few weeks together of ball movement before I get too excited. It’s clearly really important, not only from the standpoint of generating the best looks but also from the standpoint of getting the best out of each other.”
This response was typical Brad Stevens: calm, collected, and even-keeled - it was clear that while the performance was impressive, Stevens wasn’t buying the notion Boston had turned a corner after one game. Sometimes the calmness Stevens displays can be misconstrued as apathy, but with a young team proven to be nothing if not inconsistent, perhaps patience and guarded optimism are the best approach.
Fast forward 24 hours. The Celtics were back on the parquet, aiming to avenge their loss to the Detroit Pistons from earlier in the season. Things looked rosy as the Celtics jump out to a hot start, but the ball movement from the night before quickly disappeared. Instead, the Celtics reverted to their high spread pick-and-roll offense.
Update: we haven’t seen any of this so far. Tough 2nd quarter, Detroit just getting whatever they want https://t.co/IbuvMt9jui— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) February 13, 2021
The early lead readily dissipated, and Boston found themselves down by four after one. Start Act II. As Boston fails to get stops on the court, Marcus Smart, their best defensive player, has taken a seat alongside Mike Gorman and Brian Scalabrine, trying his hand at color commentary.
In typical Scalabrine fashion, he asks Smart about the ball movement and if the style we witnessed against Toronto was part of the game plan - but we all know, what he really meant was, is this ball movement, against Detroit, really what Stevens drew up?
“For us, it’s - we’re out there and things change. We have a game plan we’d like to go to, and a way that we would love to play. But we’re not playing against each other in practice; we’re playing against a whole other team who’s trying to stop that and impose their will.
So, this game’s all about adjusting and matching, and whoever adjusts the best wins the game. Each night is different. We would love for it to be like it was last night (against Toronto), but we understand it’s not going to be. On those nights, we just got to really lock down and execute on both ends - especially defensively.”
What Marcus said is fair and reasonable, but it’s still unacceptable. The best teams impose their will every night; they find a way to force their brand of basketball unto their opponents. Did the Warriors dynasty ever compromise their ball movement culture? Or the Phil Jackson Bulls abort from the triangle? Great teams are the big bad wolf, who huff and puff until the door breaks down.
Against Toronto, the Celtics showed the foundations of a great team. Fluid off the ball, deliberate in their execution, the Celtics were clinical in possession and ravenous in their pursuit for defensive stops. You could argue that Toronto forced Boston’s hand - that by honing in on Tatum and Brown, the Celtics had to embrace a brand of basketball that became synonymous with Stevens’ early tenure.
The Isaiah Thomas years, when Stevens’ stock was still rising throughout the league, were the best Celtics years in recent memory. The team outperformed expectations by trusting the collective, that no one man was greater than the whole. That brand of basketball is how Boston can reinvigorate this current roster and improve players’ trade stock as a result.
Tatum and Brown are both capable of running an offense - we know that now. Pritchard has proven adept at providing energy off the bench. And for all the commotion surrounding Kemba Walker’s troubles, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that his best game of the season came when the Celtics star wings set the table for him.
Yet, on the very next night, when the Pistons were happy to let guys take their turn in being the star, everything fell apart. When the Celtics run their beloved high pick-and-roll action, lesser teams will run a drop defense and allow Boston to run themselves into trouble - it’s been working to a tee, too.
By allowing Tatum, Brown, or Walker to force the action, you’re negating the remaining three or four players on the court, so life becomes easy. Shrink the floor, force a contested shot and reset the defense. Live with the tough made shots, and trust that they won’t continue to fall. News flash: they rarely continue to fall.
Here’s the kicker, when the offense is struggling, the defense struggles, too - it’s natural, and the same can be said vice versa. Against Toronto, everything was coming up peaches and cream on offense, so the defense was locked in as a result. Against Detroit, the offense stutters, and the defense is non-existent. Yin and’sang.
For a team that’s faced its fair share of hurdles in terms of health, you can forgive a certain amount of poor performances. But when the good games begin to feel like an outlier, that’s when you have a problem.
The fact that one excellent game against a struggling Toronto team caused such elation is indicative of the team’s on-court performances thus far. When did winning every game by the skin of your teeth become par for the course for a Celtics team that’s been flirting with a Finals appearance for nigh on four years?
Winning isn’t the problem here. The Celtics have done that thirteen times already this season. The problem is playing sustainably, operating in an offensive structure that allows your stars to sit for large stretches, one that coaxes the best out of every man 1-through-15.
If Stevens can do it with lesser rosters than this, there’s no reason to think he can’t figure it out. But if the offense continues to operate in such a selfish manner, this season will go down right next to 2018-19 as an abject failure.