There’s been a ton of discussion surrounding the Celtics' lack of ball movement, and isolation tendencies this season. For the most part, the points made have been valid. However, we can give some leeway to Boston’s roster, as they have been adjusting to a new coaching regime along with new offensive and defensive systems.
Still, we’ve seen enough of Ime Udoka’s system to begin dissecting the differences between a good and bad possession, however minimal they may be. First of all, we need to acknowledge that Udoka wants the ball moving side-to-side, and hitting the paint as often as possible. Players are supposed to shift up or sink down in the corners, and off-ball screens should be utilized liberally.
However, all of those things can happen and the possession is still a poor one, just as none of those movements can occur and it still is the right basketball play. Of course, personal preference is certainly going to play a part in what we, as individuals, deem good or bad, too. But, we can all agree that something isn’t working, whatever that may be.
As such, I’ve chosen three examples of what I deem a good offensive possession and three that I deem a bad offensive possession from last night’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
The above possession is one of the first that caught my eye, in terms of being in line with Udoka’s philosophy with the player positioning stretching the defense. It starts with Al Horford above the break as the ball handler. Grant Williams sets a wedge screen to get Jayson Tatum into a mid-post position, before cutting diagonally into the paint. Williams defender is a step slow, which allows Horford to fire a pass right down the middle of the court.
It’s a good example of generating offense from the center position above the break. Horford lifts Mason Plumlee out of the paint, creating a cutting lane for Williams to take advantage of.
LaMelo Ball, who was guarding Dennis Schroder on the weakside corner, is the designated help defender as the weakside low man and commits to Williams, resulting in a double-team. The third-year big attempts a shot, but it comes up short. Schroder is still wide open in the corner, which gives Williams a high-quality passing outlet. Schroder nails the second shot attempt of the possession.
More importantly, look at the remaining Hornets players’ positioning. Notice that while Williams is around the rim, three of Charlotte’s defenders are committed to guarding the perimeter, because they can’t afford to leave Jaylen Brown, Tatum, or Horford unchecked. Any off-ball movement in this scenario would give the Hornets an opportunity to reset, and the passing lane to Schroder most likely dies as a result.
Again, we have some smart weakside cutting and intelligent relocation from the Celtics. Horford is once again initiating the offense, this time from the elbows. Josh Richardson, who starts the possession on the strong side wing, sells the defense on a screen for Brown, which never materializes. Instead, both wings cut middle, with Brown opting to cut along the baseline.
Again, the Celtics engage the weakside low man, leaving Romeo Langford wide open in the corner. Horford spots Richardson’s cut, and fires a pass down the middle. Richardson already knows what he wants to do, and touch passes it out to Langford in the corner before relocating to the perimeter.
Before we get into the third-year wing’s drive out of the corner, note where Brown has decided to reside; the strong side dunker spot. With Brown hovering around the low-block, his defender can’t afford to help off, as that potentially gives Langford a dump-off pass outlet if the defense takes away his drive.
Now for Langford. After getting the pass from Richardson, he sells the up-fake and drives hard to the rim, in what is an almost uncontested foray into the paint. Gordon Hayward is pre-occupied with Brown, and Langford turning the corner has left two defenders stranded around the strong side elbow. Easy bucket.
The first two clips had the ball touching the paint, but that’s not always possible or necessary. Our next play begins with Williams on the low block, tightly guarded. Horford sets a screen for Tatum, who is curling from the weakside elbow. A quick pick-and-pop action between the pair sees Horford find some space to penetrate the defense before he quickly hits Brown in the corner for a catch and shoot three.
A possession that saw the ball swing around the court, kept the defense rotating, and ended with a bucket - you can’t argue there. However, even if the shot hadn’t fallen, the process was on point. The ball didn’t stick in anyone’s hand for too long, and each player made quick, sharp decisions in line with the “0.5” philosophy.
So there we have it, three different possessions, ran in numerous ways, but all falling on the positive side of the eye test. But now, we need to look at the bad ones, and that’s never fun.
Forget that this play doesn’t result in a bucket — that’s not important in this instance. Instead, focus on how indecisive everybody looks following the inbounds pass. Richardson, Payton Pritchard, and Brown all try to probe the defense off the dribble rather than quickly attacking off the dribble. The split second it takes to survey the court is all it takes for the Hornets’ defenders to recover. It’s just different guys taking turns to dribble the air out of the ball, with the shot clock winding down, leading to a poor three-point attempt.
Stagnant basketball. Everything you do on a court has to have a purpose. Cuts should create space, drag a defender, or get into a better position. Screens should force switches, or generate a rolling opportunity. Yet, on the above possession, nothing is done with intent. It’s moving for the sake of moving.
This play is obvious, but I couldn’t leave it out. Keep your eyes on Brown, watch how he pinpoints Langford in the corner, but Richardson wants the bucket and chooses to drive directly at the defense. Sure, drive and cause a collapse, but as Udoka noted postgame, “know your outlets.” The guy in the corner could drive and kick again if the shot isn’t there, or you use some more of the clock and reset.
Judicial shot selection is all we’re asking for.
There’s a good time to take a quick three, and a bad time to take a quick three - the above play falls into the latter. Until the shot, Boston had done everything right in semi-transition. Enes Freedom set a drag screen for Schroder, who whipped the ball to Horford, then another quick pass to Brown. That’s what Udoka wants from his team: snappy decisions with the rock.
Then, for no reason at all, Brown decides to fire a tightly contested jumper, rather than allow the offense to continue evolving. In truth, Brown could have created a driving lane with a simple pump fake judging by how his defender flips his hips before contesting the shot. Yet, the decision had been made and it just wasn’t the right one.
That’s the next development for this Celtics team, which despite their current form, are improving in their execution of Udoka’s system. For the most part, they’re quick with their passes and less hesitant with their shot selection. Now, they need to understand when to shoot, and when to reset, because that’s a problem that has plagued them all season.