Generally speaking, a five-out offense works best when every player on the floor is a perimeter threat, be it a knockdown shooter or someone who can penetrate off the dribble. For a big man, being an average three-point shooter has appeared to be a pre-requisite for earning legitimate minutes on a team with a focus on stretching the floor via five-out schemes.
So, it makes sense that when the Boston Celtics have had Robert Williams on the court this season, they’ve switched to a four-out, one-in system, placing their athletic big man in the dunker spot and using his lob gravity to keep defenses honest. Sure, there have been moments when Williams has operated as a single big above the break, but his lack of shooting has allowed defenses to sag or help off when doubling some of the team’s bigger scoring threats.
With teams feeling confident in helping off Williams on the perimeter, the Celtics have sometimes struggled to find their rhythm when he isn’t sharing the floor with another big or is residing around the paint. But in recent games, and most notably against the Toronto Raptors on April 7, we’ve begun to see a different way in which Williams can be a contributing factor while operating in the three-point territory: facilitating with his high-level passing and reading of the game.
A key thing to note is that just because a possession will start with Williams above the break, it doesn’t mean he needs to stay there. Offenses are fluid, and so are their movements. Williams receives the ball at the top of the perimeter but quickly looks to initiate a hand-off with Jayson Tatum on the wing. Let’s give Fred VanVleet some credit here; he sticks with Tatum, ‘cancels’ the hand-off by getting between him and Williams, and then blocks off the backdoor cut. While this is happening, Sam Hauser has taken advantage of a small defensive lapse from OG Anunoby by cutting backdoor toward the rim.
What came next was an incredible swing pass from Williams, finding Hauser on the move and leading him straight to the rim for the easy finish.
Given Williams’ size, he is well positioned to read the floor when the Celtics look to run ‘delay,’ which is when a big has the rock above the break in a five-out system. If the opposing team respects the passing threat, the spacing remains intact, allowing Boston’s guard and wings to screen for each other and pressure the paint and/or rim with well-timed cuts.
Of course, you will need more than just rocket passes from Williams if he’s going to become a viable member of a spaced-out offense. Fortunately, his willingness to get off the ball and take pride in being a screener are both tailor-made aspects of this style of play. Below are some of the actions and/or alignments we can expect to see Williams operating in as the Celtics look to make the most of their big man’s ability to initiate the offense.
Above, we will see the Celtics use Williams in a ‘touch’ action which is essentially passing someone the ball before receiving a hand-off almost immediately. You run this type of play for two reasons; the first is because your dribble died after being pressured, and the second is to force a switch or hedge, giving you room to curl and either get downhill or flow into a shooting motion — as Tatum does in this instance.
Flip is a term used for a hand-off, or get action, that is used when both players involved switch sides of the court, usually filling and replacing each other in the opposite slot area. These actions are something Mazzulla has been fond of running throughout the season and look like the play below.
As you can see, Derrick White is on the weakside wing when this action begins before he cuts horizontally across the court to receive a hand-off from Williams with both players essentially swapping sides after the pass is made.
Generally, teams will run flip actions with wings and guards, yet, placing Williams into the mix creates further confusion for the defense. As in the possession above, a center’s primary mindset after an action that involves a screen is to roll, and if that takes place after sides have been flipped, it’s just another issue to deal with, especially if the opposing defense likes to overload the strong side.
Arguably the most prevalent hand-off action in the NBA, involving three players. Simply put, a zoom action, also known as a Chicago action, is a pin-down for a player in the weakside corner, where they then lift and curl to receive a hand-off on the perimeter.
Since Williams has begun operating on the perimeter more, we’ve seen Mazzulla take a play out of Ime Udoka’s playbook by running more elbow zoom actions. For the most part, it’s been Al Horford operating as the hand-off man in those scenarios.
Celtics go to an elbow zoom action - this was a staple under Udoka - credit Chicago for some solid defense on this one. pic.twitter.com/QDCa80NTlp— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) January 10, 2023
There will undoubtedly be times when Williams finds himself on the low block and in possession of the rock. Perhaps he chased down a long rebound, hustled to keep a ball in play, or simply found himself there after cutting to pressure the rim. Regardless, a ‘grenade’ action is a valuable tool in creating perimeter offense from an interior position.
The idea is that a big man who has the ball on the block then cuts vertically back toward the perimeter before handing the rock off to a waiting wing or guard. In the above play, we see the vertical cut away from the baseline, but rather than a hand-off, we see the diagonal bounce pass.
However, given the amount of talent the Celtics have who can attack off the dribble, finish through contact, and draw a crowd in the paint, allowing Williams to default to this type of action when play has slowed down in the postseason could give the Celtics another dimension to attack the seams.
Oftentimes, Williams does as much damage without the ball in his hands as he does when in possession. By running some ‘veer’ actions (an on-ball screen that flows into an off-ball screen), Mazzulla could utilize Williams’ presence on the perimeter to spring free some of the more well-rounded attacking talent on the roster.
Can't overstate Rob's impact as a screener when he's in the rotation.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) January 10, 2023
Here we see him run some 'veer' (on-ball screen into an off-ball pin down) for Hauser.
Hand-back from Hauser to Brogdon, Pick and Pop from Hauser - 3. pic.twitter.com/SBHZQ1HGb2
As shown in the above tweet, the beauty of screening actions is that they can be strung together to create a more complex problem for the defense to solve, forcing switches, mismatches, miscommunications, and the like. Essentially, the play above was a Rubix Cube that had a 24-second time limit to complete.
Another prevalent action in the NBA. Quick/wide is a simple play where a big screen for an off-ball wing or guard as the ball enters the opponent's halfcourt, with the screen receiver then receiving a pass or handoff.
Allowing Williams to be the screener in these actions before either rolling to the rim, entering into touch actions, or flowing into a veer screen could potentially cause havoc on defense, especially if they like their bigs to hang back in the paint, as suddenly, there are mismatches to attack as switches occur.
Another name for a back screen. If Williams finds himself inside of the perimeter, on the block, or in the paint, he can still be an effective perimeter weapon by relocating to set a back screen/rip screen for the ball-handler, allowing them to quickly get downhill and potentially being switched onto a backpedaling big man.
We’ve seen the Celtics run these rip actions throughout the season, oftentimes as part of a Spain action or leading into an additional screen. Regardless of what follows on, if you’re trying to utilize a non-shooting big outside of the paint, all screening types should be considered.
It’s as simple as the name suggests. A player sets a screen, then flips the angle to screen again. Sometimes known as ‘flipping the angle,’ Williams is a talented re-screener, using his hip dexterity to change his body position in an instant to provide the ball-handler with a secondary option to drive, or even to momentarily pin a defender under the screen and create some extra space to get a shot off.
Another Udoka staple. If you have a big who doesn’t possess shooting gravity situated on the perimeter, why not get them to set a down screen for an actual scoring threat? Except, that scoring threat then sets their own screen for the ball-handler to produce a matchup nightmare and quick driving opportunity.
For Boston, this action is engrained in their DNA, having utilized it at the highest level en route to the NBA Finals last season.
Roll Man Playmaking
We’ve looked at passing out of the delay, and we’ve seen some of the different hand-off options and screening choices the Celtics can make, but I would be remiss not to point out that Williams’ effectiveness as a passer also stretches into making reads while rolling to the rim. Be it the short roll, or a deep catch and re-direct, we’ve seen the bouncy big play hot potato plenty of times and have great success in doing so.
Here you can see Williams enter into some short roll offense, setting the screen before receiving the pass around the free throw line. Notice how Williams’ head is consistently scanning the floor as he looks for avenues to redirect the ball as the defense looks to tag his role or pinch to force a fumble.
Almost as soon as the ball touches his fingertips, a pass is zipping back toward a shooter for an easy look; in this instance, Marcus Smart was the beneficiary.
Arguably my favorite play type in the Celtics' regular-season playbook. I recently did a breakdown of what the play is and why it works, which you can find below.
Above is another example of the Blind Pig, which usually leads to a thunderous finish from a cutting wing with very little rim resistance.
Ok, this isn’t playmaking and doesn’t necessarily fit the crux of this article, but any time you write about Williams, you have to reference his lob threat — it’s not my rule; I’m just adhering to it.
In fairness, we’ve seen a lot less above-the-rim play from Williams this season, likely due to his longstanding knee issues and a potential remit from the coaching staff to avoid putting too much stress on himself during the regular season.
However, the fact remains that whenever Williams is on the court, a simple ‘go up and catch pass’ is always an option, and defenses will be hard-pressed to find a way to limit those opportunities without giving up something else.
I haven’t touched on every way that Williams could find and thrive in a role on the perimeter; however, I do think the above actions will be some of the most common we see from him between now and when the Celtics (hopefully) raise Banner 18 in a few months time.
After being typecast as a dunker for his entire career thus far, Williams has an opportunity to show he’s more than a single-skill player and potentially earn a role that could afford him ways to avoid injury on his knees. Sure, a three-point shot would be ideal in the Celtics' five-out system but take it from the writer who is currently sitting in England, watching and reporting from afar, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Hopefully, Williams is about to find that out, too.