When Ime Udoka first took over as the Boston Celtics head coach, he outlined his vision for an offense that relied on ball movement and pace. To begin the year, not much had changed. The Celtics still devolved into isolation possessions and were over-reliant on high pick-and-roll offense that didn't involve the other three guys on the court.
Yet, slowly, we began to see signs of growth—fleeting glimpses of Udoka's principles setting in. Players began cutting middle to provide passing options from the perimeter, back screens were unlocking cutters off the wing, and slowly but surely, the ball stopped sticking for ten seconds at a time.
Those early months weren't pretty, but progress never is.
Right now, I'm 60 pounds overweight and recently went back to my Brazilian Jiujitsu gym to begin working back towards my usual healthy lifestyle. A bereavement and the risk of COVID both played a part in the weight gain and shift in daily habits. But things that were consigned to muscle memory now take additional time to process, and in the heat of the moment, every second is crucial. It's ugly right now, but I know things will get smoother in a short while.
I share this because that's exactly what the Celtics struggled with, except in reverse. They had movements, patterns, and habits all consigned to memory, but Udoka wanted things to be done differently. Boston had to break bad habits and then re-learn a new way to approach the game. The processing time happened in-season and put a disjointed product on the floor, and frequently that disjointedness ends up in a mistake or forced shot at the end of the clock.
Fast forward a few months, and new habits have been embraced, an understanding has developed throughout the roster, and Udoka's vision is starting to take shape. Sure, there's no doubt he wants more from this team, especially in the shooting department, but the progress is clear, and the results have begun to follow.
Nice inverted pindown from Schroder for JT here. The pindown forces the switch, and Schroder seals his man on the outside hip, keeping him towards the sideline. Opens the passing lane and a clear path to the rim. pic.twitter.com/gZqsRB6E49— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) February 9, 2022
When people think of pace, they envision countless fast breaks, drag screens, and very little half-court offense. And while those things are certainly part of it, you can also think of the speed at which players make decisions and flow into an offensive set. Playing with speed doesn't necessitate the elimination of a half-court offense. Instead, it dictates the speed at which a player decides their next move or frees themselves up to receive a pass or set a screen.
Each coach has a different philosophy, terminology, and approach to how they envision their team playing. For Udoka, he seems to subscribe to the notion of a “0.5 offense,
where decisions are made in half of a second or less.
You get the best of both "pace" worlds on the above possession. The ball quickly gets up the floor courtesy of a defensive rebound and finds itself in Jayson Tatum's hands. The Celtics All-Star draws two before kicking the rock to Jaylen Brown atop the key. A quick succession of passes follows, with the idea being to get Robert Williams the rock as he rolls to the rim.
The Brooklyn Nets do a great job of shutting down the roll, but Williams has already decided his backup plan and returns the ball to Al Horford, who gets to work in the post. Fast, decisive, and fluid; these are the trademarks of a team embracing a high-octane offense.
Another aspect of playing this brand of basketball is that you're always a step ahead of the defense — playing on the front foot, if you will. The below play is an excellent example of being one step ahead of the defense.
By midway through the second quarter, it was clear that the Nets were sending double-teams at Tatum whenever he touched the ball. As the Celtics set up their offense, they run a dribble hand-off between Marcus Smart and Tatum, knowing the defense is going to follow, and will likely leave Smart, or the player in the strong-side corner, wide open.
It seems so simple. Draw the double team and react. Yet, if defenders jump on you unexpectedly, things quickly spiral into a panic, but when you know that's how a team's gameplan is set up, you can bait them into a situation before hitting them with a counter punch.
This final example illustrates quick decision-making and the punishing of defensive coverage is the above play for Robert Williams. Jaylen Brown had already burned the Nets on numerous possessions throughout the first half of the game, so they dedicated a defender on him at all times.
Like most NBA teams, the Nets switch pick-and-rolls, with the general rule being switching on contact. So, when Williams sets a pin down for Brown but slips the screen before the defender runs into him, there's slight confusion on Brooklyn's side. As such, Williams rolls to the rim uncontested and gets an easy lob to finish out of it.
None of the above plays look to be on the break or created off turnovers. Yet, there's a pace to the execution and a clear train of thought in how the Celtics want to attack the defense and manipulate the coverages. Rather than relying solely on talent, Boston is operating with cerebral intent, designed to create openings and easy offense on every trip.
And while certain sections of the fanbase will point to the recent winning streak coming against "subpar" competition, or teams without their best players, the truth is that you can only beat what's in front of you. After all, the NBA is a confidence and momentum-based league, and a victory is a victory, whoever the opponent was. And yes, I'll be telling myself that as I continue my own re-development on the Jiujitsu mats, and will have no qualms taking my W's against brand-new white belts, because all competitors subscribe to the Dominic Toretto mindset that "it doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning is winning."