By choice or by force, Joe Mazzulla made a significant adjustment to the Boston Celtics rotation in his first game as interim head coach, choosing to move away from the ‘double big’ lineup which provided so much success under Ime Udoka.
With Robert Williams set for a spell on the sidelines alongside Danilo Gallinari, and Blake Griffin not yet cleared to suit up, Mazzulla’s options at the 4 and 5 were limited, but that doesn't take away from what saw unfold on the court.
By running lineups with only one big, Boston’s were able to field multiple rotations that could rest their hat on their versatility. Ball handling, playmaking, shot creation, self-creation, rebounding — 1-through-5, the Celtics had it all.
By removing a second big from the rotation, Boston was able to push the pace at a level we’d not seen over the past few years, running the floor at breakneck speeds, and using each other as pivot points to create second and third-side scoring opportunities.
If we look at the above play, we can see the possession starting with Jaylen Brown on the left corner, Horford receives a pass and brings the rock towards the elbow, an inverted screen from Derrick White sets Jayson Tatum free to obtain a cross-court pass, drive, draw two, hit Marcus Smart wide open in the strong-side corner for an easy bucket.
A possession that had four players touch the ball, and all five involved in the creation of a high-quality jumper, the clip may start with 14 seconds on the clock, but from start to finish Boston took care of business in 6 seconds. There’s value in pace when you have five competent ball-handlers running the floor.
Suddenly, it’s a lot harder to predict how Boston is going to attack you, especially when they’ve sprinted the floor and got into their offense before you’ve had chance to get back and calibrate your defense.
Furthermore, there’s a bi-product that comes with this level of versatility: off-ball movement. When everyone on the court is comfortable with the rock in their hands, they’re going to put themselves into positions where the ball will find them, meaning, cutting becomes mandatory if you want to have a positive impact on the game.
Even Sam Hauser, who was as stationary as a streetlight last season, was cutting towards the rim, re-locating off screens, and forcing the defense to bend to his movement.
Granted, running a double-big lineup meant there was more balance defensively, and two big bodies to contend with, but when Jayson Tatum, a wing, is one of the tallest players on the team, there’s a very fair argument to allow him additional operating room between the 3 and the 4.
By removing the second big from the equation, you’re injecting energy into a youthful squad that clearly wants to push the pace, and the bi-product is an assist-heavy performance that squeezes the offensive potential out of everyone who checks into the game.
In terms of numbers, the Celtics were assisted on 80.8% of their made 2’s and 90.9% on their made 3’s, and while their 23 turnovers might give you a slight cause for concern, it’s worth remembering that pace often means accepting a few additional lose balls, and also, that this is pre-season basketball at it’s finest.
Instead, we should focus on how Mazzulla might be leaning into a different brand of basketball than what we saw last season, while still keeping the team’s defensive principles at their core. Because, even without the double big lineup, we still saw versatility on the defensive end, albeit in a slightly different way.
On Sunday, October 2, Bobby Manning and I released an article regarding Mfiondu Kabengele’s comments surrounding the Celtics working on ‘in touch’ defense during practice, and that wrinkle was evident from the opening defensive possession.
As we can see here, the defensive possession starts off with Horford playing up to touch on the screener, as the play unfolds, the Celtics settle into their switching principles and execute in a similar manner to what we saw from them last season.
So, the biggest difference in how Mazzulla asked the team to defend against the Hornets, is that he wanted his big playing closer to the level of the screen that Udoka often liked, before allowing his switchier players to take advantage of any scrambles the Hornets were forced into. Still, when Horford (or any other big) was required, they still executed switches, although their primary remit was to stay in a shallow drop coverage and allow the other 4 players to pressure the action.
Of course, this was the first game operating with the slight amendments to the team’s schematics and philosophy, and what we saw was far from the finished project — something Mazzulla was quick to point out after the game.
“Our guys tried to do the right thing, they played hard, and we got a lot on film that we can learn from. So it’s a balance. It’s a balance of this is what we did well, but it doesn’t really matter because we have to continue to get better.”
Luckily, Boston will get a few more opportunities to work some of the kinks out before the regular season gets underway, and that starts with the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, October, 5.