It seems like every game, we’re seeing a new wrinkle added to the Boston Celtics offense. You know, the offense that currently ranks 1st in the NBA and has Joe Mazzulla’s fingerprints all over it? Boston is adjusting their approach-based on their opponent's tendencies while ensuring everybody on the court gets their chance to shine in their role.
Against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, we saw delayed cuts become a focal point for the offense, as the Celtics looked to take advantage of Steven Adams’ absence and punish the defense whenever it collapsed to contain a drive.
The Grizzlies showed their hand early and often in this contest, as they looked to swarm on penetration, throwing bodies to whoever was looking to get their shot off around the cup.
You can get a good feel for how the Grizzlies wanted to take away the paint from this early possession in the first quarter, where Memphis sends three guys into the paint to constrict Brown’s movement and scoring ability. And from here, the chess battle began.
Usually, when we see this type of defense deployed by a team, offenses will counter by running more interior screening actions: flex (screens to allow entry from the corners), cross (screens in the paint to allow a cut), or wedge (diagonal screens set for a perimeter player to obtain post position). Or, they will incorporate more perimeter actions or early offense. Not the Celtics. Instead, they decided to go a different route, one which allowed far more fluidity for their attack and ensured their half-court offense didn’t become contingent on how the defense guarded a screen.
Above is the first example of how Boston decided to operate with a delayed cutter. Allowing the play to unfold, and for the defense to squeeze its boa-like constriction around the rim, before having a wing dive towards the bucket after the initial rotations have taken place, allowing ease of access to the hoop, and to receive the pass.
With Marcus Smart in the post, the Grizzlies turn their attention to flooding the paint, even turning their backs on the perimeter players at times. Once there are multiple players committed to taking away the space around Smart, Jayson Tatum dives on a 45-cut, unguarded, to collect the simplest of bounce passes, allowing the St. Louis native to collect the ball and finish a lay-up in one motion without too much resistance at the rim.
We can see a similar approach adopted in the above play, although the delay is slightly less prominent from Jaylen Brown. Still, the thought process remains the same — wait for the defense to commit, then punish the with speed and size.
Smart’s drive from the wing engages three defenders, two in the paint, and Ja Morant who is attempting to take away the lane. Brown watches the possession unfold. As soon as the defense hones in on the drive, he darts downhill, receives the ball, takes a one-dribble gather, and then soars to the bucket for the type of dunk which reminds you why the NBA is a collection of the best athletes on Earth.
I’ll give you one final example. This time it’s Malcolm Brogdon who penetrates, engages the defense around the cup, and feeds a rampaging Brown cutting in from the perimeter. The same approach and the same good look around the rim — only this time, the shot doesn’t fall, but nothing is 100% perfect, so you can live with the miss knowing that the approach is working.
Of course, this wrinkle to the offense was only one aspect of what helped the Celtics eke out a victory, but the fact is, Mazzulla is learning quickly and is incorporating new aspects to the team’s offense on the fly. Asking your more athletic slashes to time their cuts for when the defense is already engaged on the ball handler isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it’s certainly effective and was a fantastic counter to how the Grizzlies were looking to defend without Adams in their rotation.
Looking at things from a different angle, applying this tweak to the offense also helped Boston overcome the Grizzlies' aggressive defensive approach to the perimeter, where they continually looked to limit actions on pin-downs and screens, as they tried to funnel ball handlers into their hornet's nest.
Take note of how the Grizzlies look to guard this pick-and-roll action between Tatum and Smart, most notably how Morant looks to contain it. Rather than sticking with the screener (Smart), Morant looks to deny Tatum, with the hope of forcing him ‘weak’ (onto his weaker hand) — this gives the 24-year-old wing two legitimate options, reject the screen and attack the paint, looking to get the rocker onto your stronger hand while driving or kick the ball to Brown in the corner. However, this is Jayson Tatum we’re talking about, you know, the same guy who is currently earning, far too early I might add, MVP calls.
As such, Tatum recognizes Memphis’ argument but rejects their premise, hitting his defender with an escape dribble before simply flowing into a pull-up. Still, the stifling defense did its job, because the shot clanks off the rim and ends up in a building yard somewhere.
Regardless of how that individual clip played out, it shows how the Grizzlies had a gameplan to contain an elite three-point shooting roster and force them into a physical battle around the rim. However, Mazzulla and his team were more than ready to make adjustments on the fly, and by utilizing some delayed cuts, they were able to beat the Grizzlies at their own game — because that’s what elite offenses do, and if you hadn’t noticed, Boston has an elite offense.