When Ime Udoka took the Boston Celtics head coach position, he was quick to note how he was going to focus on getting the team's defense right. Considering Udoka envisioned defense being the team’s calling card — and the fact they’re now the most stringent unit in the NBA — it seems like that was a wise decision.
But an NBA season is long, and it was never going to take an entire basketball year to reach the level Udoka was looking for. Which is why, once the defense was consistent, and on point with how the coaching staff envisioned it, we started to see some new offensive wrinkles begin to be implemented.
Every NBA team has countless options in their playbook. From simple pick-and-roll sets to counters, sideline-out-of-bounds sets, crunch time plays — you name it, and an NBA coaching staff has meticulously formed a game plan around such an event.
Of course, every team is different, and some utilize certain sets or plays more than others. You’re not going to run a ton of post offense if you don’t have a viable low-post scorer or facilitator, the same as you won’t want to run a bunch of sets to get guys downhill if your team is athletically challenged. And that’s where the beauty of coaching comes into things. They know what their team is capable of, and formulate blueprints based on that.
X’s and O’s have always interested me. I’m not sure if it’s the chess match between coaches or the countless variations and schemes in place that differ depending on the coach. But, over the last twelve to eighteen months, I’ve been spending a couple of hours each day trying to learn something new and recently began to post breakdowns to my Instagram page.
I post the breakdowns for two reasons: One, it helps cement the stuff I’m learning, and two, I find it useful to pick up on variations of plays that Udoka is implementing. It’s fascinating stuff. And there’s still so much left to learn, which appeals to me immensely.
Over the last few weeks, one set has been sticking out to me more than the others. It’s being run in every game, and in multiple different ways. That set is the “ram screen” and of course, whatever flows after the ram set has been executed.
Before we look at some of the breakdowns, let’s look at what a ram screen is. Think of it as a reverse screen-the-screener action. In STS sets, player A sets a screen, and then player B screens for player A — you’re screening for the screener.
Whereas a ram set is the inverse, so, player A screens for player B, and then player B screens for the ball-handler.
Now that we know what a ram screen is, we can start taking a look at some of the variations Udoka has implemented in recent weeks. As an aside, each of these posts has been annotated on the video, to help break down the clips.
In this first play, we see the Celtics run a ram screen that frees Robert Williams to set a screen for Jayson Tatum. The beauty of this is, that if the defending team switches the initial screen from Payton Pritchard, there’s already a mismatch when defending the Tatum/Williams pick-and-roll.
Rather than have Williams absorb the contact on the screen, the Celtics ask him to slip and cut towards the basket, forcing the defense into a tough decision. Do you double-team Tatum or have somebody trail Williams to try and remove the lob threat? And even worse, even if your help defenders do take away the roll to the rim, as they do in the above clip, Williams is a talented passer that will punish you for helping off the corner.
Things are a little bit different on this play. Again, it’s Pritchard who sets the initial screen, but this time it’s for Tatum. The Celtics get the desired switch, and Tatum flows into a side ball-screen for Derrick White. While the screening action is happening above the break, Daniel Theis has set an exit screen for Pritchard, which allows the second-year guard to get open in the corner.
By putting Tatum in this action, you’re forcing the defense to focus on the perimeter screening action, which allows Pritchard ample time to come off the exit screen and get set for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. Of course, the defense can counter here, as they do in the above clip, but that entails sending two at the ball, which will likely leave another shooter open elsewhere.
Before we look at the above variation, it might be worth quickly noting what a spread pick-and-roll is; it’s a pick-and-roll that occurs while the three players not involved with the action are all outside of the three-point line.
Ideally, when opening with the ram screen, you’re creating a mismatch that can later be exploited in the spread pick-and-roll, which forces defensive help and makes it easy to find an open shooter. Or, the defense could live with the mismatch, and then the offense's job is to attack at pace and look to generate a scoring opportunity.
The final variation I’ve noticed was a ram screen that flowed into a stack/Spain action. The concept with this variation is to get a shooter open on the perimeter, have a big man rolling to the hoop, and the ball-handler pressuring the rim. You have three offensive weapons in the same action and two floor spacers on the court to provide outlets should the defense counter the first three options.
Udoka is proving that he has plenty of schemes and tricks up his sleeve to get his guys going early and often, and of course, this is just one series that the Celtics are running at the moment; there are multiple other ones the team leans into on a nightly basis - but we can look at those at a later date.