To say that the Brooklyn Nets move the ball, as the cliche goes, “like it’s on a string” is to tell a lie. If you watch the Nets swing the ball around the key, you’re not necessarily watching it zip from guard to guard as defenders haplessly try to catch up with the action. The ball might zip around, or at least zip from player to player toward the end of an offensive trip, but it’s not constant nor frenetic. Their approach is much more methodical. It involves patience, incessant dribbling, and a predetermined destination for the ball — at least that’s what it feels like.
The Nets don’t move like molasses as much as they (very) occasionally let their plays unfold at a pace akin to that of molasses cascading out of a bowl and onto a cookie sheet. More often than not, they refuse to force the issue. Steve Nash’s offense unfolds naturally, at the appropriate pace, and logically; passes will end up where they’re supposed to end up, and plays will end as they’re supposed and expected to: with a basket, more than likely. Turnovers are inevitable, and missed shots are unavoidable. But playmaking prowess that looks this refined isn’t created in a lab overnight. It’s installed and studied meticulously so that no matter how long a possession takes, its outcome is always the same.
The Boston Celtics, so it seems, are unfamiliar with this concept. Their inability to create isn’t exactly new either.
So far in this first round series against the Nets, in which they trail 2-0, the Celtics don’t appear to have been out-assisted by anything egregious. The tally gives the Nets a 49-42 advantage in that department, close enough to trick you, dear reader, into believing that Boston and Brooklyn are buddies in at least one offensive realm. But it was in Game 2 that Boston really lacked in their playmaking; primarily, their creation for one another. While the Nets recorded 31 assists, a healthy 4.2 more than their per game season average (26.8), Boston had just 23, remaining steady with their average (23.5).
The problem? That season average was sixth-worst in the league this season. The rank isn’t enough to indicate that the Celtics so blatantly lack a focused playmaker, especially since they keep company with teams like Dallas, New York, and Portland at the bottom of that list. But to watch them play and witness the shots they elect to take is to unveil evidence of that vital, yet barren resource in real time.
While Kemba Walker’s offensive ability has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent weeks, he’s still hardly the Kardiac Kemba of yore. Even if he was, that Kemba was never much of a playmaker for others. He’s a career 5.4 assist per game player, one who has never averaged more than 6.1 in a season, and he’s always been much more reliable and valuable when it comes to creating his own shot than creating for teammates.
Marcus Smart isn’t exactly reliable in either sense; he’s more of a see-what-happens offensive contributor. Jaylen Brown is injured. Robert Williams is a rim dweller who can dish but shouldn’t be tasked with being a dimer in a usual sense, particularly from the low block. And the capable bench presences of Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, and Jabari Parker aren’t entering the game to pass. They’re entering to do whatever is required of them.
Nowhere on the roster does a master playmaker appear. In fact, Boston’s last great passer happens to be playing for its current opponent.
The unmentioned outlier would be Jayson Tatum — he’s undoubtedly Boston’s best scorer and offensive attacker, and though he’s not necessarily known for his passing ability, he’s shown flashes in the past. Some of those more impressive flashes even came in the close-fought first game of this series.
Though Tatum’s shot-making was uncharacteristically muted (by his standards) in Game 1, his five assists were tied for the most on the team. In a different, more positive sense, his passing, too, was uncharacteristic, particularly on his drives. According to Second Spectrum tracking data, Tatum drove to the basket 793 times this season and made an interior pass only six percent of the times (51 total times). In the above clip, he makes an interior pass twice to Robert Williams upon being collapsed on by the Brooklyn defense. The “old” Tatum, if you will, might have resorted to an iffy floater or an attempt through contact. But finding Williams in a bestrewed painted area is a huge step forward. (Tatum also found Smart with a drive-and-kick dish, which is more typical, yet just as welcome.)
The Celtics could have used more of the same from Tatum in Game 2. Since they spent much of it without him — he was nursing the groin injury he apparently suffered in the first game and left last night’s game after getting poked in the eye — the playmaking burden was placed on the rest of the squad. As aforementioned, the results were... middling, at best.
Though it’s just a sample, the above compilation hints at what Boston was willing to try in terms of finding shots: very little for one another, everything for the individual with the ball at that given time. It’s a rushed, panicked approach that will shoot Boston right out of this series. That is if it hasn’t already.
Sometimes, it’s warranted to find your own shot off the dribble. Plenty of the best players in the NBA do it all the time — some of them, far too often, though it goes in, so who am I to criticize? Historically, that very approach has been in Kemba’s wheelhouse. He’ll bring the ball up, dance around the top of the key for a bit, and then go for the kill when the defense least expects it. In these playoffs, though, Kemba has been far too hasty, shooting 33.3 percent of his shots “early” in the shot clock and shooting just 22.2 percent from the field, according to NBA.com. His trademark stepback has devolved from lethal to pedestrian, and his seeming refusal to consistently create shots for open teammates is as baffling as it is detrimental.
It doesn’t help that the rest of this Boston group is guilty of a similar crime. They’ve hurried into taking early shots far too often this series, almost as though they figure taking earlier (and deeper) shots will help them cut into the deficit they’ve built by way of those earlier, deeper shots clanging off the rim. You know when you’re running late, and you push on the gas with a bit more lenience, and the far more responsible person in your passenger seat chimes in, “We’re not going to get there any faster if we’re dead”? The Celtics, in this series, are the driver in that analogy. Except they won’t slow down. They’re inching closer and closer to the 18-wheeler directly in front of them, tuning out their passenger, tempting death.
Beating a team as daunting as these Nets requires the patience they employ. But instead of taking their time to find the best shot, the Celtics have gone haywire, hellbent on getting the ball in the air as fast as possible and praying it goes in. Instead of taking 12-15 seconds of the 24-second shot clock to survey the court, move the ball inside and out, and potentially create natural openings for players down low or allowing defensive swarms to converge before the ball handler kicks it out to an open Evan Fournier or Nesmith, the Celtics hurry up the floor and launch it the first chance they get. It’s about as productive as inhaling your first plate of food at a buffet, not considering the fact that it cost $40, and you might want to pace yourself in order to fit in a few more servings.
This team simply doesn’t have the offensive talent for that scheme to work in their favor. Brooklyn, meanwhile, does, and through their efficient, almost assembly line-like offensive stratagem, they remain consistent. It also helps that they employ three of the best scorers in the world... and Joe Harris.
You’ll notice that they don’t look to be rushing at all, not even on fast breaks. They allow their offense to reset and find the most open man, not launching any old somewhat open three, but looking intently for the best available shot. Not every possession moves through molasses, though they occasionally start out that way, with Harden or Irving plodding atop the key before passing the ball and cutting to then receive and pass once more. They employ multiple passers and playmakers, all three of whom are the best scorers on their team but aren’t necessarily concerned with taking the most shots. If it comes to that, so be it; if it comes to Joe Harris or Jeff Green or Blake Griffin walking away with 32 and the game ball, even better.
There was a moment early on in Game 1 where ESPN’s broadcast zoned in on one of Steve Nash’s timeouts for a “Wired” segment. You can hear Nash, with a bounty of shrugs, telling his team — which was trailing at that point — that they were “fine.” He was so far from worried. He knew the shots would fall just as long as his team kept finding them. The announcing crew joked that Nash was right, that this Nets team shouldn’t worry about anything, given the talent they boast. Sure enough, they’d win that game. Game 2 didn’t necessarily require any rousing pep talk.
No pep talk is saving the Celtics right now. Not one from Brad Stevens, nor Kevin Garnett, nor Dr. Phil. There might be nothing that can save them at this point, but some ball movement might help.