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A cut above the rest: Celtics off ball movement has helped fuel offensive improvement

After lamenting their isolation-heavy offense, the Celtics have been cutting more and scoring more.

Utah Jazz v Boston Celtics Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

At this point of the year, playoff contenders are fine tuning what’s already working for their teams. With just over two weeks to go in the regular season, there’s not a lot of time to implement big concepts into their systems. However, there have been little wrinkles or at least growing consistencies for the Celtics that we’ve seen over the last couple of games that could become substantial staples down the road and into the playoffs.

Quietly, Boston has become the most efficient cutting team in the NBA. Per play type tracking stats, the Celtics are averaging 1.41 points per possession for 10.6 points per night on cuts. That may seem like an inconsequential amount in the grand scheme of things, but you’ll take all the easy buckets you can get, especially in the postseason.

So many of these buckets are born out of teams doubling Jayson Tatum and the Celtics subsequently playing with a 4-on-3 advantage. Tatum’s run since the start of 2022 has many teams preemptively taking the ball out of his hands near halfcourt and effectively eliminating him from the play. While it may seem discouraging to cut out an MVP candidate out of a possession, the Celtics have obliged and obliterated defenses for their mistake.

To draw that double, the Celtics like to give Tatum the ball between the arc and the midcourt line and flash a playmaker to the free throw line. Here, it’s Marcus Smart, but it can really be anybody. As soon as Smart and Brown identify where the help is coming from, Brown makes that 45-degree cut into the paint for the and-1.

Here’s another early double from Denver to get Tatum to give up the ball. Instead of passing to the flashing Robert Williams at the nail, he finds Grant Williams in his corner office. That, too, forces the coverage of the defense to shrink. It allows Nikola Jokic to recover and retreat the baseline, but unfortunately for the Nuggets, Tatum cuts back door and Smart finds him with a nifty bounce pass for the dunk.

It’s a similar principle when attacking zone defenses. What Boston is trying to do is get someone flashing to the middle of the floor to force the D to rotate. When Brown catches the ball, he’s got several options, but first, it’s important to note that when he makes that cut, he’s in motion toward the basket. He’s an immediate threat to score, so the defense has to collapse on him. Brown has a quick decision to make; he could kick it out to an open Smart for an open 3 or exploit the seams. With one gather dribble, Brown reads and reacts and gets the easy layup at the rim.

Over the last five games, Derrick White has dished out twenty-two assists. At 6’4”, he’s a fearless driver, but not really looking to score. If he’s not kicking out to Payton Pritchard or Grant Williams behind the arc, teammates are cutting in his wake for point blank shots in the restricted area.

Against the Jazz on Wednesday night, the Celtics racked up a season-high 37 assists and put on a off-ball clinic.

Smart had a season-high thirteen dimes and after one of his best games as the team’s starting point guard, he didn’t mince words about his role. “I don’t know how else to say it, but I’m finally in the right position that fits me and helps the team,” Smart said about his first season as the Celtics primary PG.

Here’s Brown again with a strong middle flash.

And this time it’s Al Horford running the two-man game with Daniel Theis against the defending Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.

We’re still going to see a ton of Brown and Tatum creating off the dribble and pick-and-rolls generating points. But come playoff time when the team is trying to squeeze as much juice out of offense as possible, the trust and timing they’ve developed over the last few weeks will prove crucial in developing their off-ball game and we’re already seeing dividends.