The Celtics have struggled to get healthy all season; that’s no secret. Every time we think the team is getting healthy again, another blow comes out of left field - with the Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum collision a prime example. Luckily, entering this contest, the Celtics were primarily whole, which allowed Brad Stevens to implement a diversified offensive approach.
The Celtics have numerous multi-faceted players on their roster. Guys like Romeo Langford and Payton Pritchard have displayed an ability to impact games both on and off-ball, while Aaron Nesmith has flashed two-way potential in recent games.
With the Celtics now having a multitude of ball handlers that can impact the game fit and healthy, Stevens can go deeper into his coaching bag. A prime example of new wrinkles in the Celtics offense came in the first quarter against the Portland Trailblazers in the form of some pistol sets.
In the above play, we have a pistol variation that I have dubbed the “pistol curl” due to Romeo Langford’s cut off the initial action. A pistol set is an early offense play involving a guard, a wing, and a big - in this case, Marcus Smart, Romeo Langford, and Robert Williams.
Smart pitches the pass ahead to Langford, who gives the ball back to Smart in a dribble handoff around the wing. Langford curls off a Williams screen before getting into the paint to finish a lob pass from Smart.
These types of plays are what Celtics fans have been calling for throughout the season. Rather than isolation on the perimeter and waiting for a screener, the Celtics use their multi-skilled ball-handlers to generate early offense and create additional spacing as a result.
The beauty in these early offense sets is that they can be used for misdirection, forcing reactions before the ball is swung into a second side action against a flabbergasted defense scrambling to reset. Sometimes, the defense won’t react to the initial effort, but the movement generated from it allows for increased cutting to occupy help defenders’ attention.
The Celtics run the same pistol curl action in this play, except Smart opts to feed Jayson Tatum on the weak side wing. Langford, who had curled middle, relocates to the strong side corner before cutting baseline to drag his defender away - removing the low man who would usually be the primary help defender should Tatum drive.
Encouragingly, the Celtics are slowly finding another gear offensively, with the team limiting their isolation plays while looking to run more defined sets. The beauty of having most of the roster available on a nightly basis, is that Stevens dust off his playbook and start to get creative again.
For most of his NBA tenure, Stevens has been lauded as an X’s and O’s coach, a sideline general who continually creates advantages for his team through intelligent play designs. This year, with the Celtics limitations due to COVID, and a plethora of lingering injuries, we’ve seldom seen Stevens’ brilliance.