For a team that’s struggled to find consistent ball movement, the last 96 minutes of basketball has been a breath of fresh air.
“Last two games, moving the ball’s been good. I think we’re really trying to emphasize more cutting, more off-the ball cuts, more movement. In the last four weeks or so, we’ve had some growing pains along the way, but for the most part it’s been pretty good offensively,” Stevens said after four Celtics finished with 4 or more assists.
By now, we’ve all heard (and discussed) the Celtics’ over-reliance on the high pick-and-roll and isolation plays from the wing. Yet, in the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a rise in dribble-drive penetration and off-ball back cuts as the Celtics look to find their identity on the offensive end of the floor.
“All the cutting is designed to get threats at the rim. It’s just another way to get threats at the rim. You can drive the ball. You can play off pick-and-rolls. Against a team like this (Charlotte) that switches everything, you may be able to seal occasionally if you hit low and get a good angle, but it’s hard to hit the paint off a roll. You’re doing more off cutting. You’re doing more off driving,” Stevens divulged when questioned on the team’s ability to create openings from their improved off-ball movement.
Interestingly, the Celtics’ didn’t utilize their interior presence to full effect against the Hornets. Instead, they proceeded to pepper their opponents with kick outs for deep range assaults. In the third quarter, those onslaughts became a bombardment of hellfire as the Celtics hit 61.5% of their three-point attempts.
Here’s an example of Boston’s drive and kick game. Kemba Walker starts by setting an inverted screen (where a guard screens for a wing or big) for Jaylen Brown, who’s bringing the ball up court. Brown feeds Marcus Smart on the strong side corner. Smart then drives baseline, forcing the Hornets defense to sink.
As Smart arrives under the rim, Charlotte is focused on Jayson Tatum in the weak-side corner, Robert Williams ghosting into the paint, and Jaylen Brown of the strong-side slot. Walker has re-located to his favored spot above the perimeter and is totally unchecked. Smart makes the brilliant read, kicks out to Walker, allowing an easy three against a scrambling defense.
A few weeks ago, this play would have broken down into a spread pick-and-roll, and featured a lot of isolation, which is something Stevens touched on post-game, too. “Too much pounding as we know, isn’t successful against these best teams because they’re so versatile and athletic.”
Brad Stevens: "When we moved it side-to-side and didn't settle, we've been good. The last two games have been good. We're emphasizing more movement off the ball and more cutting."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) April 5, 2021
The above play is a great example of Boston’s Miagyi-do approach - side-to-side movements. Spraying the ball around in this manner forces the defense to consistently scramble, essentially bending the defense until you begin to see cracks.
A swing pass, ball fake, then drive-and-kick, all lead to an easy three above the break.
Since Evan Fournier found his footing within the Celtics offense, the team has regularly looked for him in the half court. Plays like the one above show the Celtics finding their latest weapon with enough time to make something happen - which in this case is an assist to Jaylen Brown.
Robert Williams spoke about his role in finding his teammates in their scoring spots during his post-game interview. “I’m just putting an emphasis on figuring out where my teammates score the ball. And now I need to figure that out for Evan.”
A fair retort to the Celtics current offensive upswing would be that their successes have come against a lowly Houston Rockets team, and a patched-up Hornets team missing their two best players and coming off a killer road stretch. That criticism is warranted to a certain extent. However, we’ve seen Boston play down to the competition in recent weeks, and we’ve seen them rely on their isolation sets against non-contending teams, too.
Me too, but you can only beat what’s in front of you https://t.co/S8ClquOolk— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) April 4, 2021
With more than twenty regular season games to go, the Celtics are looking like they’re finally figuring things out and there’s reason for cautious optimism. “Everything we want to do is still in front of us,” Stevens said when discussing the teams chances of climbing the standings and building momentum heading into the playoffs.
While neither the Rockets or Hornets games were perfect, the offensive execution resembles Celtics basketball again. The team is pushing the pace in transition, swinging passes, and using their superior scoring skills to force defensive collapses. And for those of you that want Boston to keep up this style of play against sterner opposition, you will get your wish on Tuesday with Philadelphia up next.