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Joe Mazzulla is already making his mark

The rookie head coach had his fingerprints all over Boston’s season opener.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Last year was a rollercoaster ride — slow start, strong finish, and a trip to the NBA Finals for all our troubles. Ime Udoka was the mastermind behind the Boston Celtics’ finish, and all signs were pointing to another bite of the apple under his helm in the upcoming season.

Then, the suspension happened, and expectations began to tumble. Joe Mazzulla, while clearly ready for his chance, isn’t Udoka, and he isn’t coming off the back of being a head coach on a Finals team. Is that a bad thing though?

No, Mazzulla isn’t Udoka, and as long as he doesn’t try to be, that shouldn’t be an issue. No, Boston’s new head coach wasn’t in the hot seat against the Golden State Warriors in the last round of the postseason, but he was on the coaching staff, and he experienced the pain along with the rest of the team. And no, expectations aren’t as high as they were just two months ago, but that could be a good thing!

Against the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston played like a team that had been unleashed from a summer of speculation and upheaval. They ran the court with purpose, dived into double teams early and often, and most importantly they fought for every inch.

“We got each other’s backs out there. We not taking no mess this year,” Jaylen Brown said after the game.

That fighting spirit is certainly something Udoka instilled within the Celtics last season, and is something that projects to have flourished over the summer. It would seem that Mazzulla is already instilling his own philosophy on the team too because, in terms of the Celtics' style of play against the 76ers, there wasn’t much semblance of the Udoka gameplan on display.

Obviously, everything started with the increased pace of play, but some of the sets which Boston run were certainly out of the Mazzulla playbook and were designed to keep their up tempo offense ticking over. Under Udoka, Boston liked to run a play called ‘wide’ as they brought the ball up the court - a simple off-ball screen on the weakside to allow the receiver to catch a pass towards the top of the perimeter.

Sometimes, you might hear of this play being called ‘quick’ - as it’s designed to allow an early offensive possession. However, we often see this play flow into a secondary action, which dictates a full half-court offensive possession. Against the 76ers on Opening Night, we saw Boston use this play call sparingly, marking a shift away from a staple of the Udoka offensive system.

In its place, we saw an increase in the amount of ‘drag screens’ the Celtics ran — a simple pick-and-roll in transition, designed to punish a defense before they’ve had a chance to setup in their coverage.

Take note of where the rest of the Celtics are to start this possession, and how the drag screen allows Jaylen Brown to engage both Joel Embiid and James Harden early, forcing them to pick up his drive which in turn allows Brown to either attack or kick out to a shooter once they’re in position.

Drag screens are designed to accentuate transition possessions, and are a staple of high-octane teams, thus marking a concerted effort by Boston’s coaching staff to keep the tempo high throughout the game.

Don’t get me wrong, Boston still ran some ‘wide’ sets, but the volume paled in comparison to what we saw from this team last season. Furthermore, the secondary action following the initial ‘wide’ action was certainly a new wrinkle to the playbook, as Boston leaned on stagger screens to get a shooter or ball handler curling towards the rim.

Above, we don’t see the initial pass to the screen receiver that usually occurs in a ‘wide’ set, but rather, both the screen receiver and screener flow into a stagger screen for Malcolm Brogdon, who uses the gap in the defense to pressure the rim before kicking out to Grant Williams in the corner.

Not every team is going to have a rim protector like Joel Embiid manning the middle, and even if they do, the big won’t always be in a position to deter shots the way the 76ers big man did in this possession. What I’m trying to say is that if the Celtics look to run these types of hybrid wide sets moving forward, there’s plenty of scope for success, both around the rim and on the kick out.

The final adjustment on display against the 76ers was the move away from using ram screens as an entry set.

Last season, Ram sets were ubiquitous with Celtics basketball, with multiple variations being run throughout games. However, Mazzulla has his own ideas on how he wants Boston’s entry sets to look, and early observations suggest that we’re going to see a lot of ‘Horns Out’.

Above, we can see Noah Vonleh setting the ‘out’ screen for Jaylen Brown in a Horns set, with the aim being to generate a switch as Brown collects the ball on the perimeter. Secondary actions can flow, and players can relocate, but the crux of this type of entry play is to give a talented wing the upper hand against a slow-footed opponent.

The primary difference here is where a Ram screen often looked to get one player solid post-position on a mismatch and the other a favorable match-up on the perimeter. Horns Out, on the other hand, is focused on creating opportunities on the wing, whereas a three point shot is always a threat and the defense has to be focused on potentially overloading onto the strong side to protect the drive.

Of course, all of these sets and possessions are from a one-game sample size, so there’s no telling if they were implemented due to matchups, or if Mazzulla is genuinely implementing his own style of play onto the team. Either way, outside of their combative mentality and well-oiled switching scheme, there was little imprint from the Udoka system, and like it or not, that is what’s going to give Mazzulla the best chance of success this season.

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