Save your best play calls for the games that matter most.
Brad Stevens certainly did that this season. He dusted off a few old favorites on Tuesday night and innovated with a few new wrinkles to counter the Washington Wizards defense and put the few scorers he has remaining in positions to succeed. Those play calls were most evident in after timeout (ATO) situations, where Stevens had the time with the whiteboard in his hands to literally draw up an adjustment.
The Celtics scored 20 points on their 13 after timeout possessions, or 1.54 points per possession (PPP). In a league where the average PPP is under 1.0, that sizable of a bump is worth not just noting, but praising Stevens for. It also gave the Celtics enough of an advantage that it’s part of what propelled them to victory.
Early on, the ATO plays were designed to get an advantage to whoever needed offense created for them. In one instance, that became Evan Fournier, as Stevens leaned on one of his favorite actions of the past year. It’s similar to the common Spain pick-and-roll that’s taken the league by storm the last three or four years.
Really, it’s a simple play: a dribble handoff to Fournier from Rob Williams, getting Fournier to his right so he can attack the rim. The wrinkle: Kemba Walker walks himself into the post and tries to back screen Williams’ man, Robin Lopez, so that Lopez cannot help as Fournier turns the corner and gets deep penetration.
The result is a very uncontested look at the rim, something valued in any do-or-die game, particularly against the Wizards:
As the game went on it became abundantly clear that the Celtics would go as far as Jayson Tatum would take them. He was on fire, particularly in the second half, and his 50-point outburst is the main reason the Celtics locked up the 7th seed.
Eleven of those 50 points came on ATO situations, signaling the switch in Stevens’ mentality to try and get Tatum the bucket instead of using it as an opportunity to involve someone else. The attention the Wizards began to pay to Tatum, with face-guards and denials, meant Stevens could utilize his playcalling prowess to spring his superstar free.
To being the second half, Stevens made sure to target the face-guarding tactics of the Wizards. He ran a simple play, putting Tatum on the wing and the contact-loving Marcus Smart in the corner beneath him. As Fournier began to drive baseline on the opposite side, Smart would set a back pick for JT, also known as a hammer screen.
The gravity of the hammer action was pretty clear. As Smart’s man went to help at the rim on the Fournier drive, there was nobody to rotate to the corner to take Tatum away:
Getting beat on hammer screens wasn’t enough to deter the Wizards from staying tight on Tatum. The risk-reward of shutting down the Celtics’ clear best option lead them to continue face-guarding the erupting scorer.
So Stevens dialed up another backdoor play, this time one predicated on Tatum springing himself free while the entire defense stared down a screen waiting for him. The brilliance of the play isn’t in the complexity of design, just the placement of the other four players on the floor so that nobody could help at the rim once they realized Tatum was cutting backdoor.
While Tatum is the guy that goes backdoor, watch Fournier and his man, Davis Bertans. There’s enough ambiguity within the spacing that Bertans thinks the play could be a screen for his man. Bertans also jumps high-side to deny Fournier the action, thus taking himself out of emergency help positioning.
Now, Tatum can safely cut backdoor and have zero fear of a help defender interfering on his shot:
Let’s address the narrative for a second: Brad Stevens is an outstanding basketball coach. Nobody has doubted his tactical prowess, but in a seemingly snake-bitten year the other aspects of his coaching style have come into question. Now that we’re in the playoffs, where coaching matters and is evident, I get the sense many Celtics fans will fall in love with Brad all over again. The dominance of his team’s late-game execution, the beauty of his ATO sets, the constant defensive game planning that limits opposing stars.
It wasn’t Brad who changed, though. His whole mantra was to manage the regular season in a strange COVID world with a shorthanded roster from the start, get the team healthy and primed for the playoffs. The absence of Jaylen Brown doesn’t change the fact that Boston worked and planned for this moment. To revel in the success of Stevens’ coaching now, when clamoring for a change at the top when he stuck to his regular season plan, would be disingenuous.
The guy can coach, and for that reason, I’ll always believe the Celtics have a fighting chance in the postseason. Even against the star-studded Brooklyn Nets.
Bring it on, Brooklyn.