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The return of Boston’s ball movement

The Celtics moved the ball freely against the Mavericks, leading to some solid offense.

Boston Celtics v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Since the Boston Celtics lost to the Golden State Warriors on December 10, they’ve been stuttering through their schedule, failing to find any form of consistency and, more importantly, any semblance of the offensive style that saw them dominate the league in the early part of the season. Against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday evening, everything seemed to slot back into place.

Ending the game with a collective 274 passes, the Celtics produced a stern reminder that they’re still a fierce opponent with one of the most potent offenses in the NBA when they commit to moving the rock at a blistering pace.

The above play is Boston’s opening possession of the game. The Celtics made seven passes on this possession, generating a fourth-side action — meaning the ball swung from one side of the court to the other on four occasions. Impressively, from the moment the Celtics' offense gets set in the half court, the ball only bounces 5 times, each with the purpose of bending the defense.

It’s hard to defend a team that leans into ball movement at this level, especially when they’re committed to making the ball the fastest player on the court and working for a quality shot rather than firing up an attempt at the first hint of daylight.

Here’s another example of how Boston leaned into their ball movement in the early juncture of the game — this time from a sideline out-of-bounds play. Similar to the first clip, the Celtics look to move the rock and make Dallas’ defense rotate until it begins to crack. From the moment Jayson Tatum inbounds the ball, Boston makes six passes, again swinging the ball from side-to-side and looking for ways to create off of paint touches which we see when Smart creates out of the low post for Al Horford.

Again, the Mavericks' defense is forced into a heavy rotation, causing them to overload on the ball side before being caught by Horford’s extra pass to Grant Williams, and then, a scramble occurs.

Of course, not every possession needs to be a passing sequence of such magnitude. An elite offense is a diverse ecosystem that incorporates multiple tools to wear down your opponent's resistance.

This possession might not boast multiple passes, but it’s still incredibly effective and is still a solid example of the Celtics' willingness to move the rock. Tatum drives the ball into the paint, forcing Dallas to sink in and look to close his lane. A kick out to Horford gets Reggie Bullock rotating to close out; once Bullock is committed and has generated some momentum, Horford swings the rock to Grant Williams in the corner for the open three.

Timing was key to this possession. Patience waits for Bullock to build some momentum on his close-out ensured he would struggle to stop, flip his hips, and change direction towards the corner, giving Williams that extra second or two to set his feet and find his line of sight to the bucket.

“I think it’s on that first group to, you know, we gotta get back to our identity. I think when we were playing at the highest level, we just played faster. Just like some point-five basketball, shoot it, pass it, or drive it. Because, when we play like that, we’re damn near unguardable,” Tatum said following the Celtics' loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Here we see a perfect example of .5 basketball in action. From the moment Tatum gets control of the ball, he knows what he wants to do with it: push the pace and get Boston into some early offense. A pass to Smart leads to a skip pass to Horford that then quickly flows to Jaylen Brown, drive, and bucket.

Quick, smart decisions, all made in the blink of an eye.

“That’s when we’re at our best...We have that balanced attack, and our bench guys are playing with confidence, with poise, with aggression on both ends of the floor. So, it goes back to we’ve seen the best version of ourselves, we’ve done it for a good amount of time. Can we continue to do it over and over and over again?,” Joe Mazzulla said.

After a few challenging weeks, the Celtics have rediscovered the keys to their offense and proved they’re able to compete with the best when they’re locked into their offensive movements. However, gearing yourself up for a game against a Mavericks team that was unbeaten in seven games and led by Luka Doncic is one thing, but now, they’re going to need to do the same against some of the lesser teams in the NBA. It’s one thing to play up to the competition, but remaining consistent is going to be what creates confidence in the system and trust throughout the roster.

“It’s a matter of can we do it over and over and over again? Our guys have a level of maturity about them. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have bad games or stinkers, but we have a level of maturity, and our guys really want to win. So, I trust that in them, I knew we were going to do it tonight, and I’m going to work to make sure that we try over and over again to do that.” Mazzulla said.

The Celtics are set to face the San Antonio Spurs this evening, and that will be a good litmus test on whether what we saw against Dallas was the exception or the adherence to the new (old) rule.

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