The nice thing about having two star players is, well, you have two star players. The burden of offensive creation falls more on their shoulders than a coach’s, and that’s how the Boston Celtics turned into a top-ten offensive group in the league in 2021-22. But what happens when defenses turn their gameplan onto those stars and make everything more difficult for them, including cutting to get open and catch a pass?
Pressure releases, also known as backdoor cuts, help alleviate those finicky defenses that aim to prevent touches for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The Celtics have a great deal of high-IQ players, above-average passers and a lot of cohesion amongst their group to know when to naturally look for backdoor cuts. Sometimes, it’s coach Ime Udoka calling a play out of a dead ball or timeout. Other times, it’s just recognition from the players.
Since it’s X’s and O’s Week here at CelticsBlog, we’re going to focus on four of the plays that Udoka draws up by design to help get Tatum and Brown backdoor cuts to the rim.
Disguise and simplicity has a lot to do with an effective backdoor set. The defense (and primarily the defender on Tatum or Brown) needs to be targeted without knowing they’re being targeted. The easiest way to do that? Add a backdoor as a wrinkle within what they do.
The C’s have great passers at their big man spots. Al Horford is one of the better center facilitators of the last twenty years. Robert Williams makes timely passes and quick decisions. So, the Celtics run a lot of actions with them at the top of the key, taking away rim protection and allowing the rest of the group to screen and cut for each other.
In their Delay series, a common action that every NBA team runs, placing Tatum or Brown in the corner allows them to see how they are guarded. If top-locked, or blocked from cleanly coming away from the baseline to catch the ball), a simple backdoor cut will get them open. Other times, place them as a screener and have them slip to the unoccupied rim for a layup:
A backdoor out of the Delay action is great because either position works and requires little organization before the play. As such, these may not be frequently called or designed by Udoka during a dead ball, but pre-planned reads and adjustments the Celtics’ players make on the fly. A little wink between Tatum and Timelord, for example, can get them on the same page for the slip to the rim. Nice playbook layering by Ime Udoka, who puts together simple and common actions that empower players to make reads and have different options automatically built in.
Speaking of keeping it simple, the Horns formation is one of the most common in the NBA over the last fifteen years. Two players stand in the corners, two at the elbows, and one atop the key to initiate offense. There are endless options for handoffs, screens, and unique plays while once again keeping the rim unoccupied.
If you’re sensing a theme, it’s that an effective backdoor set not only capitalizes on the element of surprise, but keeps help defenders away from the rim to foil any layup attempt from the backdoor cut.
Udoka’s Horns set is quite simple. The initiator enters the ball to the elbow opposite the star he wants to have the backdoor. Tatum or Brown will take one step up, as if they’re coming off a screen, and then dart to the rim, where they can turn this into a catch-and-finish or even a mismatch post-up if the size advantage is on their side:
Simple. Effective. Quick-striking. There are easy layers once again built in if the backdoor doesn’t work or the primary defender doesn’t play along — it is important that a failed attempt at a drawn-up play doesn’t stall out the offense.
Everybody loves a good alley-oop, right? Lob dunks can simultaneously act like a backdoor that relives pressure from the offense on the perimeter and rile up the crowd by swinging energy to the offensive team.
One of the more common actions we’ve seen is a backdoor cut accomplished as part of a decoy. The Philly action is a common one for big-time scorers and was popularized by Allen Iverson back with the Philadelphia 76ers under Larry Brown (hence the “Philly” name). The star player jettisons across the court from one wing to the other in a line parallel to the baseline, coming off a screen at each elbow to get the defender trailing him.
Those screens don’t always work against denying defenses. While they can run into contact on the screens, the ball is usually centered on the floor, meaning the primary defender is standing between the passer and the recipient. Udoka’s version of a pressure release relies a bit on timing, but uses a different passer: the first screener at the elbow.
A simple curl action to get to the rim for a lob can do a lot to make the defense think about how they guard subsequent actions the rest of the game. While the Celtics don’t run a ton of sets out of a Philly formation, the next time they’d go to that package would likely see a little less pressure for Tatum or Brown on the wing.
Effective backdoor sets happen quickly, before the defense can react to them. Layered in any playbook for star players are two-man actions: handoffs, empty-corner ball screens, etc. Think of basketball as being a series of two-man games or three-man actions at its core. If you’re going to run a two-man action like a handoff, you need to strategically place the other three in a way that occupies the help defense or properly spaces the floor.
The Celtics love to start Tatum and Brown in the corners, then as the ball reverses sides of the floor, send them up the 3-point line to receive a handoff. That version of a two-man game can easily be interrupted by a defensive denial, thus stalling out the offense as the other three players are elsewhere to provide spacing.
Quick recognition of the denial can allow Udoka to use that defensive tactic to his advantage. The entire side of the floor is cleared out for a quick and immediate backdoor. Tatum or Brown (typically Brown) can fake like they’re coming for the handoff and simply slip the play to the rim.
A good backdoor set isn’t just about what happens to the man getting denied. It’s about all the pieces. Striking quick to keep the defense from identifying and adjusting. Spacing the floor properly so no help defenders can contest at the rim. Disguising the action as one built into the playbook.
Nothing about the sets that Udoka runs is overly complex or innovative. But simple works because, over the course of a game with 100 possessions, simple lulls the defense to sleep. That may be the most dangerous and effective reasons these sets work so well: once you see them coming, it’s too late.