At this point in the season, we can be fairly confident in understanding the types of actions and schemes Joe Mazzulla likes his Boston Celtics team to run. For the most part, we’ve seen multiple variations of each action as Mazzulla looks to keep his coaching counterparts on their toes.
However, it’s worth remembering that Robert Williams has only recently returned to the rotation. As such, there will be actions or variations of actions that we’ve not yet seen.
On Monday night, as the Celtics defeated the Chicago Bulls in a tightly contested affair, we got a glimpse of a new variation that could become commonplace within Boston’s playbook — assuming they stick with pairing Robert Williams and Al Horford for stretches.
The play we’re looking at is out of the Celtics Spain pick-and-roll series, something which has become ubiquitous within their offense, both as a direct point of attack and as a decoy set to create driving lanes for the ball-handler.
The basic premise of a Spain pick-and-roll is simple: you have a standard pick-and-roll action occur, except you put a shooter in the screening position of the defending big man, then when the second screen takes place, the shooter pops out onto the perimeter, hopefully creating some confusion among the screener's defender and the big man.
Usually, you will see a guard or a wing operating as the ‘popper’ with a big man as the traditional screen and roll guy. Throughout the season, the Celtics have put Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon, and Sam Hauser in that ‘popper’ spot as they look to increase the pressure on their opponent's defense due to either a driving threat or a legitimate catch-and-shoot threat.
However, against Chicago, Boston decided to put both of their big men in the action, leading to a defensive breakdown by the Bulls and an unimpeded roll from Williams to the rim. Take note of how Ayo Dosunmu looks to rotate over and tag Williams’ roll but bails out to recover to Brown just as Tatum looks to fire off the pass. Given the urgency Dosunmu displays, one can only assume that Tatum was looking at Brown as he fed the rock to Williams, which is mightily impressive given the speed the action was unfolding.
When running a double-big lineup in the modern NBA, ensuring one is a legitimate perimeter threat is essential, and with Horford currently converting his three-point attempts at a 42.6% clip, Boston has that box well and truly checked. It’s not a surprise that Mazzulla went to a double-big Spain pick-and-roll, but it does display the strength in depth Boston has at all five positions while giving a glimpse into some of the creativity we can expect to witness in the coming weeks and months.
In their first start together this season, Horford and Williams looked to be the perfect pairing, and Mazzulla added the icing on the cake when he began to add variance to an action we’ve seen the Celtics run countless times over the first half of the season.