Throughout the course of last season, one of the biggest concerns with the Boston Celtics roster was a lack of shooting. They lacked the go-to three-point shooters that a lot of teams around the league keep handy on the roster. Look at Max Strus on the Miami Heat, Pat Connaughton on the Milwaukee Bucks, and Seth Curry on the Brooklyn Nets.
Boston didn’t have zero three-point shooting. Their two best players, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, are good shooters, and Al Horford transformed into one of the best shooters in the league during the postseason. But in terms of pure shooters whose only role is to knock down shots, the Celtics have limited options.
Luckily for them, Grant Williams had a breakout season, becoming one of the most consistent shooters in the NBA, and Payton Pritchard cracked the rotation later into the season. And now, heading into next year, they’ve signed Danilo Gallinari and brought back Sam Hauser, who could earn more minutes as a three-point specialist.
The main issue with shooters earning playing time in Ime Udoka’s rotation is how defense-oriented the team is. Williams has no issues with that, as he’s an extremely versatile defender, but Pritchard, Gallinari, and Hauser will need to be dependable on that end if they want to stay in the rotation. If they can, however, Boston will have an opportunity to expand their offensive arsenal.
Having shooters on the court takes a ton of pressure off of Tatum, Brown, and Boston’s other stars. His gravity draws defenders to the three-point line on the drive, and that’s what made the Celtics’ drive-and-kick-heavy offense so successful last year. By standing in the corner, guys like Williams was able to either get himself an open look or force defenders to give Tatum and/or Brown an easier look at the rim.
But what if Williams and Boston’s other shooters did more than just stand in the corner?
Don’t get it twisted: Williams turned himself into an elite three-point shooter from the corner, and Pritchard (57.1%), Hauser (53.3%), and Gallinari (48.6%) all shot extremely well from there, too. But if all the Celtics do is chuck their three-point shooters in the corner, their offense will become more and more predictable. Defenses will begin game-planning for that, adjusting their style of play to prevent those shots from opening up.
During a recent interview, I asked Williams what he’s been working on this offseason, and he mentioned shooting on the move as the main thing:
“Shooting on the move, that’s the big one. Not necessarily like Duncan Robinson shooting on the move, but more so pick-and-pop. Just make sure like the shots that I am gonna have to make this upcoming season, because teams are going to run me off, teams are going to be heavily contesting, so, that’s one.”
Despite all their success last season, the Celtics never had anybody on the roster who could move off the ball at a high level. Robinson has mastered this in Miami, even though his numbers took a dip last season. None of Boston’s shooters are natural off-ball movers, but implementing different sets to get their shooters open looks could give their offense a nice facelift.
In order to effectively identify players that could potentially be implemented into the Celtics’ offense, let’s look around the league at some actions run by other teams, starting with Robinson.
This one could be run for any of Boston’s shooters but would probably work best with a big man - Williams, Hauser, or Gallinari. The play gets cut off a bit, but Robinson starts in the paint and sets a screen to free up Bam Adebayo on his way to the rim. Because of Adebayo’s standing as a lob threat, Eric Bledsoe is forced to help on the roll. In turn, Robinson sprints to the top of the key for an easy look at the basket while Zion Williamson gets sectioned off.
Now, imagine Boston’s personnel in these spots. Williams, Hauser, or Gallinari would act as Robinson, while Robert Williams, another elite rim-runner, would take the place of Adebayo. Then it’s “pick your poison” from there. It could be a guard running the offense while Tatum or Brown goes to pretend to take the ball at the free throw line or vice versa.
This is a similar example to the Robinson play, with the eventual shooter setting a back screen to begin his action. In this play, however, the Bucks use one of their stars, Khris Middleton, as the decoy rather than a rim-runner. There are a lot of moving parts, but that’s what is at the base of this play.
Middleton hands the ball off to George Hill before cutting to the paint, and as that happens, the Bucks swing the ball to Jrue Holiday on the other side of the floor. Instead of stopping at the rim, Middleton cuts under the basket, acting as if Holiday is going to dump him the ball in the post. After Connaughton sets him the screen, he sprints to the top of the key as both Denver defenders get locked in on Middleton, leaving Connaughton wide open.
Having Tatum or Brown play the role of Middleton in this play would easily have the same effect. Both are lethal isolation players, and most teams would prefer to avoid them getting the ball on the low block. Having Williams, Gallinari, or Hauser act as the shooter in this play would be ideal, but if Pritchard set a solid screen, he could work in this situation as well.
Here’s another solid play that the Celtics had in their bag last season, but one that they could implement even more. In both cases, the shooter sprints from the corner to the top of the arc, receiving two screens along the way - one initial screen and one from the ball-handler who hands it off.
Cameron Johnson and Curry both pulled off this play to perfection, which shows how versatile it can be. No matter who the shooter is they should be able to execute this play and get an open three-point shot.
It may seem overly simple, and that’s because it is. This type of play shouldn’t be reserved for the designated shooters, either. Guys like Tatum and Brown would benefit from easy looks like these, too. But in general, having Pritchard (or any of the big guys) sprint around two hard-set screens is a sure-fire way to create a solid look.
Miami is very sneaky in this example. Not every play has to involve an insane amount of off-ball movement. Sometimes it’s just about having the right players in the right places, and that’s exactly what happens here.
Take a mental snapshot of where every player is at the very start of this play. Gabe Vincent is at the logo, Tyler Herro is in the paint, Marcus Garrett is in one corner, Robinson is in the other, and PJ Tucker is in the dunker spot next to Robinson.
After Garrett fakes a screen, Herro slides out to the wing as Vincent drives to the hoop and ends up kicking the ball out to Tucker for a three. While it looks like a simple drive-and-kick play, which Boston utilizes often, the Heat add an extra element to the mix.
As Vincent is calling for the screen, which never actually gets set, Robinson slowly drifts over to the wing, and as soon as he drives, Tucker sprints out to the corner. Garrett brought his defender with him when he faked the screen, Herro caused the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bigs to get caught in the middle, and since Ricky Rubio was expecting the screen, Vincent blew right by him.
With no help in the paint, Evan Mobley was forced to move off of Tucker and help on the drive. This left Isaac Okoro stuck in the middle, forced to choose between guarding Robinson and Tucker on the three-point line, both of whom are knockdown shooters.
The Celtics absolutely have the personnel to run this type of play, especially if two of Pritchard, Williams, Gallinari, and Hauser are sharing the floor. One of them could just as easily be swapped out for Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon, or one of the team’s stars, too.
The LA Clippers ran this play to perfection, and the Houston Rockets fell right into their trap. Again, plays don’t always have to take an entire shot clock to develop, nor do they have to involve an excessive amount of movement.
Ivica Zubac begins the play by helping Reggie Jackson get the ball on the wing, and then he immediately turns to set a screen for him. At that point, both Dennis Schroder and Christian Wood are laser-focused on him and Jackson. But right as Jackson begins to move toward the screen, Zubac switches positions and sets a screen for Luke Kennard at the top of the floor instead.
With no time to react, Wood gets caught off guard. He initially thought he would have to switch onto Jackson, but since Schroder never got hit with a screen, he just ends up in limbo. Zubac ends up getting Kennard wide open on the wing for a three.
Pritchard would probably be the best player for the job in this type of play, while either Al Horford, Robert Williams, or even Grant Williams would be the ideal screen-setter. White or Brogdon could also act as shooters in this scenario, but Pritchard’s comfortability shooting from deep would make him the ideal guy for the job.
Drive-and-kick opportunities will still dominate Boston’s offensive playbook, and that’s great. That is the offense that has worked well for them, and it’s the offense that Udoka has nailed into their brains over the course of the last year. But sprinkling in some of these plays more often will make their offense less predictable.
Williams, Pritchard, Gallinari, and Hauser will have to get used to these sorts of plays, and that will take some time. But having it in the offensive arsenal could be a game-changing tool to have as the Celtics look to improve on that end of the floor.