Whenever the Boston Celtics play a game, I usually try to follow it up with an analysis article, aiming to pinpoint specific areas of the team's performance, or shine a spotlight on a player who excelled throughout the game. Following the Celtics’ demolition of the Philadelphia 76ers, I had to take a different approach.
When a team plays as cohesively as the Celtics did last night, it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific aspect or player, because everybody played their part to perfection. So, instead of focusing on any singular area of the game, we’re going to take a look at some of the plays and possession that illustrate Ime Udoka’s offensive and defensive scheme, and how the Celtics executed that scheme to a high level.
Making the right read
One of the first plays that caught my eye was the above bucket from Grant Williams, but more notably, how Jayson Tatum utilized his scoring gravity to open up the team's best three-point shooter on the perimeter.
As the ball makes its way to Tatum in the mid-post, Georges Niang stunts towards him to provide additional pressure in the hopes of forcing a pick-up. Of course, Niang can’t over help, as Williams is all alone on the perimeter, so he quickly recovers to his defensive assignment. Tatum reads Niang’s movements, and as he recovers, he begins to back down his defender and get into the paint, engaging multiple Sixers defenders, including Niang as a result. When the defense begins to collapse, Tatum kicks out to Williams for the open three.
Just a few months ago, Tatum would have attempted a contested fadeaway from that position or would have opted for an up-and-under finish in the hopes of drawing a foul. Instead, the All-Star remained patient, manipulated the defensive coverage, and made the right read.
Defensive IQ and switchability
The Celtics came into the game against the Sixers with a clear plan for Joel Embiid. Go man-to-man coverage on the post, and then flow into a trap once he caught the ball. The above possession illustrates that scheme perfectly.
Williams is fronting the post, trying to deter the high-low entry pass, but of course, Embiid has a height advantage, and the ball easily finds its mark. Instantly, Daniel Theis reacts and rotates over to take away Embiid’s driving lane, and initiates the double team.
Embiid does a good job of finding the open man on the weakside corner, but Tatum quickly reacts to contest the shot. And it’s not fair to point fingers at Marcus Smart on this possession as he was left splitting the difference between the two weak-side shooters, and relied on Tatum making the correct read.
Overall, the Celtics ran similar defense on Embiid throughout the game, and considering the Sixers eventually moved away from trying to feed their star in the post, you can chalk Boston’s coverag as a resounding success.
Off-ball movement is an incredibly broad subject. A simple cut across the baseline can be all that’s needed to turn a stagnant possession into a masterpiece or a pin-down on the weak side wing can initiate a thunderous dunk. Everything is intertwined when it comes to basketball.
Plays like the one above are becoming far more common with this Celtics team. Maybe Udoka called out the set, or maybe the Celtics flowed into it because they saw something with the defensive coverage and knew they could exploit it. Whatever their reasoning, the Celtics flowed into a “twirl stagger” on this possession, which gave them two options: feed Tatum around the cup, or Pritchard on the perimeter.
Of course, Tatum will always be the primary outlet, especially when that close to the rim, but running a play to create multiple options is exactly what Udoka wants from his team.
Honorable Mention #1: Aaron Nesmith
A lot has been said about Aaron Nesmith this season, most of it negative. And while one good performance doesn’t dictate an upturn in fortunes, it does deserve some praise. Of course, we could look at his three-point shot falling, but that was always going to happen if Nesmith was given enough opportunity.
But on the above play, it isn’t Nesmith’s shooting that caught my eye, but his athleticism and speed when recovering on defense. As the play unfolds, Nesmith makes a mistake by overhelping around the rim. Philadelphia punishes the lackadaisical defensive coverage and finds the open man on a swing pass. But watch how quickly Nesmith charges down the shot. That type of hustle doesn’t happen if you’re not fully committed to earning bigger minutes within the rotation, and it certainly doesn't look like a player that doesn't care. Oh, and we can’t forget how quickly the sophomore went through the gears to recover to his man in time to affect the shot.
Sticking with Nesmith for a moment, seeing him drive a closeout like on the play above is reminiscent of what he was providing the Celtics towards the end of last season. If you remember, there was a genuine discussion about the Vanderbilt product’s ability to develop into a three-level scorer and a two-way wing. So perhaps Nesmith has been the victim of a roster crunch, and with additional minutes we will start to see growth again moving forward.
Honorable Mention #2: Effective Isolation
Plays like the one above used to drive us all wild. You know the type: a Tatum isolation on the wing that ends in a contested jumper. But, unlike the Tatum from a few months ago, the St. Louis native now gets himself going by driving to the rim or attacking space in the mid-range. It’s rare that we see Tatum go iso when there are better options on the court.
But, with the Celtics up by a healthy margin, and Tatum clearly feeling it, it made sense for him to go into his bag and remind everybody why he’s one of the best players in the league. It’s also good for his confidence considering the rough shooting year he’s been having.
The Celtics have been trending in a positive direction for the past few weeks, and while they have been feasting on a relatively easy schedule, they now have wins against the Sixers, Denver Nuggets, and Atlanta Hawks.
The defense has become this team calling card over the past few months, and Brad Stevens is certainly forming a team that Boston can be proud of. But, it does look like the offense is finally starting to catch up, and that raises the Celtics ceiling even further. Let’s all enjoy the victory, and performance against the Sixers, and remember that what we’re witnessing right now still isn’t the finished product of Udoka’s vision for this roster.