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Celtics turning mismatch hunting into free-flowing offense: ‘Ball moves faster than man’

With a team full of stars, Boston is turning an offensive tactic oft-saved for the playoffs into an every-night scheme.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With a new team comes new challenges. In the case of the Boston Celtics, those challenges involve traversing the difficulties of finding shots for a starting lineup full of All-Star-caliber players. The luxury of wealth could lead to massive rewards, but in order to get to that point, comfortability needs to be established.

Through the first three games of the season, the Celtics ranked in the middle of the pack in assists and towards the bottom of the league in total passes per game. Their offensive attack primarily consisted of attacking mismatches and letting their talent speak for itself.

Prior to Boston’s game against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night, head coach Joe Mazzulla said that they showed a clip in practice where every player on the court had an advantageous matchup.

“What are you supposed to tell them?” Mazzulla said, emphasizing the challenge of finding a balance between mismatch hunting and a free-flowing offense.

Against Indiana, not only did the Celtics earn their second blowout win in a row, this time a 155-104 stomp, but their offensive cohesion took a huge leap forward.

“I think when we get stagnant, and it seems like it just takes a while, that’s when we’re at our worst,” Derrick White said after the game. “But when we’re doing it in the flow of offense, pushing the transition, and just kind of doing it organically, that’s when we’re at our best. And so, we talk about it a lot, and we’re just gonna have to continue to do it and get better at it.”

While Boston’s assist numbers looked similar to their first three games, the way they utilized their cross-matches was much improved.

In the first quarter, Kristaps Porzingis set a screen for Jrue Holiday. With the threat of Porzingis rolling to the rim, the Pacers overplayed him, leaving Holiday open for a three, which he drained. There was no pass involved, but the offensive threat Porzingis imposed was enough to create an opportunity for his teammate.

“Kristaps killed it [in] the first two games, and tonight he took seven shots, but he has the humility to still play on defense, to still screen, to still pass,” Joe Mazulla explained post-game. “And so I think it’s that.

“Where it’s like, ‘Hey, tonight might not be my spectacular night, but we still got to play the right way.’ And then the other teammates having an understanding of like, ‘Hey, let’s get KP involved. Let’s get Jrue or Derrick involved. Let’s get those guys [involved’. And so, I think it’s just them, the chemistry that they build amongst each other, the communication and the trust that they build. That’s what they work at.”

Later in the third, Porzingis and Holiday found themselves in the same exact position. But this time, Bruce Brown played up to prevent the three. Holiday drove to the basket, Porzingis rolled, and it ended in an easy layup for the Latvian big man at the rim.

Porzingis’ 13 points on seven shot attempts won’t stand out in the box score, but the sheer threat of his presence creates advantages for the Celtics. The same can be said for Holiday, White, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown.

“We’re playing really intentionally in the first six to eight seconds of the shot clock about where we can gain an advantage, whether it’s the guy who has the ball or whether it’s the person that’s ahead,” said Mazzulla.

The Celtics’ talent allows for a simple brand of basketball.

“When you got so much talent around you, it makes the game easy, and you just take what the defense gives you at that point,” said White.

Chemistry isn’t developed overnight. It’s a process that takes reps, tests, and failures to fully iron out. Boston’s talent has gotten them through some of the early stagnation this year, and as the season rolls on, their focus remains on developing a rhythm as a unit.

“It’s mostly them having an understanding and them working together,” said Mazzulla. “Those guys spend a lot of time communicating with each other, whether it’s during practice or during film.

“So, it’s a lot of them just learning about each other: Where they want the ball, where who the strike spots are, who’s guarding them. And then managing the game. And so, a lot of it has to do with the work that those guys put in before the game.”

In most cases, a pass-heavy possession will outweigh the concept of mismatch hunting. One prioritizes the individual, the other the team.

But in the case of the Celtics, a mix is necessary. The skillsets they have on the roster allow them to take mismatches and turn them into a consistent form of offense, which, in turn, has the potential to create a free-flowing scheme.

And togetherness will be the focal point.

“I think it just comes down to basketball,” said Jrue Holiday. “Making a play. If you see you can drive to the basket and create a two-on-one, that’s an advantage for us. We have shooters, we have people slashing to the basket, [and] athletic guys who can finish on top of the rim.

“But at the same time, I think with that ball movement, because ball moves faster than man, we can pretty much do whatever we want. So as long as we keep on attacking, being aggressive, and trying to get advantages, I think we’ll be fine.”

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