Hot take: the Celtics are fun again.
It’s not that Boston has been boring per se, just inordinately bland. Despite the flashes of brilliance and individual development, the team has often found a way to lull you into sleep - or sleep deprivation, depending on how invested you are in this team.
One of the perpetual points of contention continues to be the team’s focus on isolation plays. We’ve sat, exchanging our one non-refundable resource (time) in return for countless hero ball possessions as if watching auditions for the next Space Jam movie. Newsflash: it’s been more Monstars than Toon Squad.
Against the more physical teams like Detroit, you can imagine the Celtics in the locker room at halftime, dejected, looking for a bottle of “secret stuff.” Here’s where things in real life differ from the movies; there’s no “solve all” for a disjointed team, only small steps towards the larger goal.
The thing about small steps is they quickly amalgamate into giant strides. Swinging the ball from side-to-side is a small step. Figuring out when to attack with intensity or make the extra pass? Well, now we’re trending towards a stride.
As we head into the All-Star break, one of Boston’s most significant strides has come to the forefront of their offensive activity in recent games: the two-man play between Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis.
“Theis has always been one of my favorites to be on the court with. His main goal is to get his teammates open. He’s not a guy who cries for the basketball. He just wants to play the game and play the right way - love playing with Theis” - Kemba Walker.
In the NBA, most successful offensive actions come courtesy of two-man play, be it a pick-and-roll, off-ball pin, back screen, and so forth. Actions such as these will generally go overlooked, unless it’s something which is ran successfully numerous times per night, in various ways.
Here is where the Walker/Theis link-up has become so prevalent. Not only is it working, but there’s a diversity to their attacking play that keeps defenses guessing.
Before diving into the styles of their attacks, let’s look at some of the underlying numbers. Firstly, we need to quantify what we’re looking for:
- The number of possessions both Walker and Theis shared the floor, where Theis operated at the five spot (because Walker tends to operate in 1-5 PnR schemes).
- How many assists Walker has made and how many of those have gone to Theis.
- Theis’ scoring profile off those Walker dimes.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the little-and-large duo has shared the floor for a total of 303 possessions; The Celtics are +13.9 in points differential during this time. Great, now we know what sample size we’re working with, so what about Walker? How many assists has he made this year? Basketball-Reference has tracked the Bronx native dishing out a total of 87 dimes in his 20 games this season - giving us an average of 4.6 assists per game.
Next up is figuring out how many of those assists have gone to Theis. PBP Stats has tracked Walker assisting Theis 26 times so far this season, meaning that 30% of Walker’s assists have been teeing up the Celtics versatile big.
Side note: Only Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown have combined for more assists on the Celtics this year, with Smart setting up Brown 47 times.
In 19 games, Kemba Walker has dished out 85 assists.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) March 3, 2021
25 of those have been to Daniel Theis - 29%
In the below chart, we can see how versatile Theis’ shot profile is when linking up with the Celtics star guard.
Despite how fun it would be to break down each location of these makes and explore the film associated with that, it would make for an incredibly arduous article. Fortunately, we’re going to simplify this into three sections:
- Open corner pick-and-rolls
- Short rolls
Empty corner pick-and-roll
An empty corner PnR is a simple concept, where a standard PnR action occurs, except there’s no shooter situated in the strong-side corner three spot. From an X’s and O’s standpoint, the benefits of running this style of PnR is the space it creates for either the ball-handler or the roll-man.
With no shooter camped in the corner, there’s a minimal defensive presence behind the perimeter defenders. For a player as quick and crafty as Walker, this level of space is a dream scenario, while Theis’ versatility means that he’s just as likely to carve open the defense with a pass as he is with a pull-up.
Walker opts to finish this play himself, but the space created and lack of resistance on the roll-man is imperative to this type of two-man game. However, the Celtics have moved away from running this regularly as Walker has rediscovered his form. Having the option of calling this play between the duo is a luxury worth having, with both being close to automatic from mid-range.
The bread-and-butter of the Walker/Theis combo. An exquisite blend of versatility, basketball IQ, and comradery, mixed into a delightful possession for easy buckets within the offense’s flow. The diversity of this play type allows for innovation on where to set the screen: drag, back, side - it makes no difference, as long as the big-man times his roll correctly.
The idea behind running these short-roll plays is that the ball-handler’s scoring gravity forces the defense to trap or hedge the screen, allowing the screener ample time and room to find their spot in the mid-range. From there, the big can either pull-up or offer secondary creation to a cutter on either side of the floor.
On the above play, the Wizards play a conservative brand of PnR defense, but Robin Lopez gets caught being zoned in on Walker. Theis has set a Varajeo screen (where you screen on one side, then flip the angle) before rolling to the free-throw line.
Lopez doesn’t begin to close out on Theis until Walker makes the bounce pass, while Davis Bertans is expecting Theis to roll hard into the paint and is dropping as a result. All of these moving pieces allow Theis to get off a comfortable shot from the free throw line - something he did on four subsequent plays to get Boston in striking distance of Washington.
Here’s another example, highlighting how a scorer’s gravity can open up these short-roll opportunities for the big-man. Myles Turner wants no part of being switched onto Walker, so he drops back to protect the paint instead - a wise choice considering how things went for him later in the game.
Justin Holiday has been caught on the screen and is now scrambling to recover, allowing Theis to mosey into his beloved mid-range area. The shot falls short, but the execution further highlights the impact the Walker/Theis tandem has on manipulating defenses.
The pick-and-pop is a play as old as time itself, a staple of offense from pee wee to pros the world over. As modern bigs’ skill sets have evolved, so has the pick-and-pop, with it no longer being solely used to provide a mid-range opportunity for your Paul Millsap’s of the world.
It’s also not a coincidence that a large proportion of Walker’s assists to Theis are for “above the break threes” as Walker is most likely using the Theis screen before turning on the jets and forcing the defense to collapse, and then expertly kicking back out to the open Theis above the break.
Again, Theis is the beneficiary of Walker’s gravity and the defensive miscommunication it causes on pick-and-rolls. Except for this time, instead of rolling towards the rim, Theis pops/flares off the screen into space on the perimeter.
Despite Theis coming into the season as a reluctant three-point shooter, his confidence has continued to grow from beyond the arc, and with guards like Walker teeing him up, we should continue to see him get a steady diet of open looks.
It’s no secret that Kemba Walker struggled upon returning to basketball activities. However, the uptick in his play has come almost exclusively in tandem with the introduction of the two-man offense on the perimeter.
That one simple offensive wrinkle is undoubtedly not going to be enough to carry the team into a deep playoff run, but it’s a building block on which to expand. Right now, though, we’re seeing Walker play some of his best basketball since arriving in Boston, and Theis continues to evolve his game to suit those around him. It’s an unselfish duo surrounded by other high-gravity scoring threats - and it’s starting to give defenses nightmares.