Ime Udoka’s offensive scheme has been under scrutiny this season, particularly for how stagnant the Boston Celtics offense can get in the half-court. One moment, we’re witnessing a free-flowing offense, who carve up defenses like they’re auditioning for master chef, and the next, Boston start’s playing “the paint is lava” leading to a flurry of late clock shot attempts.
With such a topsy-turvy offense, the notion of a playmaking point guard has been a recurring theme, as the Celtics often look devoid of ideas when a defense shuts up shop. Yet, against the New Orleans Pelicans, Boston utilized a myriad of ways to keep their offense ticking over and remain unpredictable.
One of the more fruitful aspects of the Celtics' playmaking against the Pelicans, came from initiating out of the post. Be it the low block, or elbow, the Celtics found versatility by utilizing the switchability of their roster along with the gravity their players hold when cutting off-ball.
Here is an excellent example of how Boston utilized the low block to generate good opportunities from deep. Marcus Smart feeds Robert Williams on the perimeter and the curls over an Al Horford screen into a cross-screen for Jayson Tatum before receiving the high-low entry pass from Williams.
Tatum then curls from the weak-side mid-post onto the strong-side wing. A quick exchange of passes sees Smart begin to work the low-block and draw additional defensive attention, leaving Tatum open for an easy three-point attempt.
Sure, the shot doesn’t fall, but it’s clear the Celtics plan to add post-initiation is potentially successful. We should also appreciate how Smart’s strength and post-game are good enough to force teams into helping, as that will always free up a shooter around the perimeter.
Of course, the above possession wasn’t the only time Boston looked to run their offense through the post.
Here’s another example, this time with Tatum running a “get” action after hitting Horford with a post-entry pass. A get action is pretty simple: you pass the ball to a player, and then go get it back, usually in the form of a dribble hand-off; which is precisely what you see Tatum do, before wiping a pass to Josh Richardson that’s found some space on the perimeter.
By running offense via the post, you’re forcing the defense to react by either doubling, digging, or staying home of your shooters. Each of those reactions creates advantages.
- If the defense doubles the post-player, a shooter is left open on the perimeter.
- If a defender digs, then they open themselves up to getting beat off a back-door cut.
- And if they stay home on the shooters, the post player can get to work backing down their man and looking for an easy bucket.
For anybody wondering what a “dig” or “stunt” is, it’s a momentary lung towards a ball-handler, designed to create panic and force the offensive player to pick up the ball, thus limiting the threat.
This possession provides a good example of a “dig” or “stunt” but it doesn’t result in a back-cut, although Tatum does get the bucket. On this possession, Devonte’ Graham is guarding Tatum, but as Horford makes his way into the paint, Graham executes a shallow dig in hope of disrupting the Celtics big man's rhythm.
As you can see, the dig is successful, as Horford picks up his dribble. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, Boston boasts two of the better passing big men in the NBA, so Horford has no problem redirecting the ball out to Tatum.
One of the key things to remember is that while Boston incorporated additional post-based offense into their game plan, it was only a part of the puzzle. Sometimes the ball would stick in the post while the play unfolded, and others would get redirected instantly with the aim of creating a mismatch.
For instance, in the above possession, the ball only touches the post for a single second, before Robert Williams kicks it over to Smart for a second side action. Also notice how open Smart is when the pass is made. Had the recipient of Williams’ pass been Tatum or Brown, the shot would have been up for the defense managed to close out. However, whether points were registered on the possession is inconsequential, it’s the process that we’re focusing on.
Interestingly, Udoka opted to incorporate some additional interior playmaking against a team known for running zone defense. It’s no secret the Celtics have often floundered when tasked breaking down teams who enter a zone, and at times, it looked like that would occur again against New Orleans.
However, the best way to beat the zone is to penetrate the initial line of defense, by either cutting middle, or...getting the ball onto the low block. For all the discussions surrounding Udoka’s poor in-game decisions, and propensity to favor strange lineups, his offensive plan for the Celtics last game was both logical and necessary to avoid another stagnant stretch that could potentially leave the team fighting another uphill battle.
While the point guard debate will undoubtedly continue to rage on, seeing Udoka begin to differentiate his playbook is an encouraging sign, one that will pay dividends as the team navigates the second half of the season. Because, no matter which way you slice it, there’s only so much you can do when tasked with creating all your offense from the perimeter, especially when the defense knows your weakness and game plan coming in.