On Wednesday night, the Boston Celtics put on a dominant performance, forcing the Chicago Bulls to pull their starters early in the fourth quarter. Nights like this, where the Celtics get an early jump on their opponent and then swarm like rabid soldier ants to vanquish their opponents are becoming commonplace just before the playoffs.
Five Celtics players ended the night with double-digit scoring numbers, while Marcus Smart and Payton Pritchard fell short by a single point. Of the thirteen players who saw playing time against Chicago, ten of them registered an assist, and eleven of them secured a rebound. We’re witnessing a team-orientated brand of basketball, one that has other teams looking shell-shocked by halftime.
Whenever a team has star players, the defensive game plan is simple: contain the elite threat, and force the rest of the roster to beat you. Usually, that game plan, if executed correctly, is a winning formula. But what do you do when the rest of the roster continually makes the right read, finds the open man, and consistently hits their shots? It’s a question coaches up and down the Eastern Conference are trying to figure out, because without finding an answer, this Celtics team is going to be mighty tough to defeat in a seven-game series.
Take a look at the above play as an example of selfless ball movement and excellent decision-making. It’s clear that on the above possession, the Bulls are looking to limit Jayson Tatum’s impact, but in doing so, are overloading the ball. As Tatum drives, three defenders sink towards the nail, while the weakside low man rotates over to tag Daniel Theis on the roll.
Once Tatum penetrates from the perimeter, he extends his dribble to allow the defense time to react. Suddenly, Payton Pritchard is wide open on the weakside slot, and Tatum finds him with a great pass. As the defense adjusts and closes out to Pritchard, the sharpshooter gives up a good shooting opportunity to find Derrick White open in the corner. Bucket.
Derrick White has been a huge addition to the Celtics bench unit, too. His quick decision-making, tendency to pressure the rim, and willingness to get off the ball quickly have all helped the team embrace such a selfless brand of offense. Even the end-of-bench guys are getting their opportunities within the flow of the offense.
Ok, in fairness, if Luke Kornet didn’t fumble the pocket pass from Pritchard, the rest of the play wouldn’t have occurred. But, it’s a credit to both Kornet, and Sam Hauser, that the team recovered from a slight blip to end the possession with a three.
Kornet could have easily decided to post-up and look for a hook shot, or call for a cutter to get the dribble hand-off in motion. Instead, the three-point shooting big man redirects the rock to Hauser in the corner, who in turn finds Aaron Nesmith on the perimeter. Chicago’s defense is in rotation, and before you can blink, the ball has found the net.
We’re also seeing a total buy-in across the board on the defensive end. Every player on the roster understands their role and communicates to ensure their man doesn't get free. Of course, it’s the offense's job to find and manipulate gaps, so we can’t expect the defense to stand strong on every possession - but they’re coming close.
“Just domination from start to finish. They went on the road against a team that is a playoff team that you could possibly face. You took the crowd out of the game, you handled the game, you shared the basketball. This was a total team win,” Former Celtic Eddie House told Abby Chin during the NBC Sports Boston post-game show.
Udoka’s brand of basketball isn’t an easy one to adjust to, or at least, that’s how it’s seems this season. So, now that the philosophy has begun to trickle down to the 13th, 14th, and 15th man.
The Celtics are unlikely to have much cap flexibility in the off-season, and there’s no guarantee that any new additions will adapt to Udoka’s system. So, perhaps this current roster, minus a few tweaks on the fringes, is similar to what we’re going to see next season.
After all, we’re seeing individual growth across the board. Even Aaron Nesmith is starting to show signs of becoming the sharpshooter we all hoped he would be when Danny Ainge drafted him with the 14th pick.
But for now, we can rest assured that the Celtics have strength in depth. Sure, no player will replace the impact of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, or Rob Williams, but should one of those players need to sit out a game or two, we can finally have some confidence that the bench unit can step into the starting five and impact the game in a positive way.
Most contending teams are top-heavy - it’s an ailment the Bulls have been trying to figure out all season, as have the Brooklyn Nets. It’s also what downed the Los Angeles Lakers this year. So, not only should we be grateful that the Celtics are a deep roster with talent coming out of the wazoo, but also that Brad Stevens has moved to provide Udoka with players who fit his brand of basketball and play a selfless style.
It might be too early, but maybe we can start allowing ourselves to dream.