It’s getting hard to find new ways of praising this current Celtics team. From their exceptional defense to their vastly improved decision-making, we’ve touched on it all. But on Sunday afternoon, the Celtics served us all a reminder that they’re capable of taking their offense to new levels.
Facing off against the league’s 25th ranked defense, the Celtics finished the contest with a season-high 39 assists on 56 made baskets, as they tore open Washington’s defense time after time. For reference, the Celtics are 14th in assists per game, and 11th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Whenever discussing a bump in production, our initial reaction is to hone in on the players with the largest assist numbers.
Jayson Tatum’s court vision and processing speed have both evolved into new monsters as this season has worn on, and Marcus Smart’s ability to control the tempo of games has reached new heights. Those developments were undoubtedly a catalyst for the team’s passing display against the Wizards.
Praising the growth of individual players is fair, and makes sense to a certain degree, but, against the Wizards, it was the team's execution that stood out.
Take this early assist from Tatum. Sure, the pass and vision were both exceptional, but without Daniel Theis cutting hard to the rim, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been able to slide over to Al Horford and remove the passing lane. And without the veteran big man timing his cut as the trail man, Tatum wouldn’t have had an easy outlet out of the trap.
It’s all about the moving parts. When Ime Udoka came in as the team’s head coach, he often spoke of playing selfless basketball, and it’s those secondary cuts that prove why his point was so important.
Moving without the ball and manipulating the defense is rarely going to get the recognition of regional or national media, simply because that type of basketball doesn’t sell - but it does contribute to winning.
Here’s another example of Theis cutting to open a passing lane for Tatum. This time, the veteran center engages the low help defender, leaving Grant Williams wide open in the corner for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. Of course, as the pass is made, the defense scrambles to close out on the shot, but by that point, the damage has already been done.
Off-ball movement has always been one of the best ways to create scoring opportunities for others, but it’s not the only way. Another reason the Celtics were able to compile such a lofty assist number was simply that guys were hitting their shots.
Suddenly, a team that’s struggled to convert from deep this season was hitting their threes, and with that, the floor spacing became a weapon the team has been waiting to wield all season.
As such, simple “one player away” passes were resulting in easy buckets, forcing the defense to start playing higher up the floor, which then created back-door opportunities or allowed guys to drive into the teeth of the defense.
Take the above play for example. The Wizards are trying to get the ball out of Tatum’s hands, so they’re playing up to touch on the screen, with Caldwell-Pope looking to hedge or trap as Tatum comes over.
The All-Star wing reads the defense and forces them to collapse as he drives towards the nail, Smart then adds further pressure onto the defense by executing his own shallow drive before feeding Tatum on the post for an easy bucket.
In our final clip, we’re just looking at a simple pass in transition to get Payton Pritchard a shot in rhythm. Of course, the shot falls, because that’s what the Oregon alum does - get buckets.
The point is, not only did the Celtics' off-ball movement get the team going early, but it also helped build confidence, and once that happens, the rim looks like a singularity, absorbing everything that comes near it.
When peeling another layer off, a lot of Boston’s success against the Wizards came down to how well the team is executing Udoka’s 0.5 system. The ball isn’t sticking, guys are moving, and the defense never gets a chance to recover once an advantage has been created. What follows is an array of easy opportunities around the rim, high conversion rates on shots, and a team that’s playing as a single unit.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics entered garbage time with 8:26 remaining in the fourth quarter. When you’re playing towards your optimum offensive level, against a team missing some of their best players, winning so dominantly is what’s supposed to happen. But, we’ve seen the Celtics play down to their competition in recent seasons, so witnessing them execute their game plan with no regard for their opponent's feelings or pride is an encouraging sign heading into the post-season.
Still, there are sterner tests ahead for this Celtics roster, but if they can continue to move the ball as they did against the Wizards while remaining robust on the defensive end, there’s every reason to be excited about the upcoming post-season.