Early last season when things weren’t going well, there was a lot of head-scratching as to why Ime Udoka wasn’t utilizing his big men as offensive creators in the half court. Both Al Horford and Robert Williams are high-level passers on the perimeter and out of the post, yet for large stretches, the pair were underutilized.
Judging by what we saw against the Toronto Raptors in the Celtics' final preseason game, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla might be more inclined to lean into some big-man-led offense, especially if it can create numerous scoring options out of a single action.
When talking X’s and O’s, you will often hear a term called ‘delay’ which simply means to have your center at the top of the perimeter in possession of the ball, with the rest of the offense lining up on the wings, slots, or corners. Delay is a common action that has been adopted throughout the league, but only a select few centers can truly impact the game from this action beyond hand-offs and screening.
Horford is one of those select few, and Robert Williams has the passing skills to be mentioned in that same conversation. Under Udoka, the Celtics would implement their delay actions while running ‘zoom’ actions (also known as Chicago) on the weak side — which is a pin down in the corner leading into a hand-off around the top of the perimeter.
Zoom is one of the most prevalent actions across the entire league, so there’s no doubt we will see Mazzulla asking his team to run those sets consistently. However, if Friday’s game against Toronto is anything to go by, we’re going to see a far more diversified delay series this year.
For what it’s worth, Boston ran these sets almost exclusively in the first half, which tells me that they were experimenting with different looks and figuring out if this type of offense is something they want to adopt moving forward. Spoiler alert: they most definitely should continue building upon these looks.
Let’s take a look at some of the different delay actions Boston ran through Horford.
The above clip shows the most consistent action Boston ran out of their delay series, and that’s a simple flare screen to get either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown open on the wing. Shown above, we can see Horford operating as the ball handler, handing off to Brown and then setting the flare screen for Tatum.
The movements themselves are interesting, but the fun stuff occurs when you look at the pressure an action like this puts on the defense. By screening the hand-off and then screening for Tatum, Horford has forced two switches on the perimeter, forcing OG Anunoby to recover onto Tatum, and applying pressure to a Raptors defense that’s now been put into a slight rotation. A quick up-fake followed by a drive ensures Tatum engages both Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa, which creates the space for Derrick White to reach a quick pass and fire away without much of a contest on his shot.
Here’s the same action again, except this time, a hand-off doesn’t occur for Brown, but rather, Marcus Smart sets a flare screen for the Georgia native to pop into space on the weak side wing. Brown then beats the Fred VanVleet close-out with a head fake, forces Khem Birch to help off Horford as he drives, and also entices a dig from Scottie Barnes who is in the strong side corner. A kick-out to Horford manipulates Anunoby as the weak side low man, leaving White open in the corner for yet another easy bucket.
When your two best scorers are getting the ball in a position that allows them to be a threat as a both jump shooter and slasher, the defense has to react, and unfortunately for them, Boston’s rotation is littered with scoring threats who are all occupying space around the perimeter — it’s an upside of playing with a single big man (yes, I’m making a stand here.)
Here’s an annotated breakdown of the above possession:
Outside of flare screens, the Celtics also looked to utilize cutting actions ensure their offense was attacking the Raptors' defense as they were in motion. The idea behind sets such as these was that if you can get a cutter to force a defensive relocation, you’re creating space for slashers to fill or you can hit the cutter in motion for either a quick shot and a re-direction pass to freeze the defensive rotation.
Below, we see Blake Griffin, who is also a talented passer, running the delay while Smart and Tatum ‘scissor cut’ to create confusion among the Raptors' perimeter defense, note that a scissor cut gets its name because if you drew lines for the two cutters, it would look like the arms of a pair of scissors.
In fairness, the spacing on that possession isn’t great, as Griffin matches Tatum’s movements and kills any driving lanes that could have potentially unfolded. However, the idea is there, and if the Celtics continue to execute similar plays, the spacing will come in time.
There’s a saying in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that ‘drillers make killers’ meaning the more your drill a specific technique or movement, the more proficient you become at a said skill — the same can be said about implementing new caveats to your game plan or offensive scheme.
We shouldn’t expect the Celtics to abandon their .5 offensive principles from the Udoka era, nor should we expect to see the team move away from actions that served them so well last year. However, incorporating more offense that involves the passing skills of their big men is something that could unlock new opportunities for everyone on the roster.