Running a perimeter-based offense has a few requirements. First, you need capable shooters. Second, you need good spacing. Third, you need ball handlers who can control the tempo and make the offense tick by making the right reads. And finally, you need a commitment from everyone within the rotation to move without the ball.
The Boston Celtics have three of those four elements. They have the shooters, the spacing, and the ball handlers, yet for some reason, they don’t always have the off-ball movement.
Against the Miami Heat in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals, that lack of ball movement provided a stark contrast to what Erik Spoelstra had his team running throughout the game.
The above possession goes deep into the X’s and O’s vault, with the Heat opening the action by running Max Strus in a ‘Floppy’ action, while there is also a pin-down on the weak side for Kyle Lowry. Of course, that wasn’t enough, so Lowry then flowed into an empty-side pick-and-roll after Bam Adebayo had relocated, allowing Jimmy Butler to attack a reeling Celtics defense.
What you’re watching is spacing done right.
The play started with four members of Miami’s rotation around the paint before quickly spacing out to the perimeter and getting into a Jimmy Butler side pick-and-roll.
And here is what we’re used to seeing from the Celtics.
Everyone on the floor is spaced out. We get a single-screen action, flowing into a pull-up jumper. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with going into these actions a couple of times each quarter, especially when it’s Jayson Tatum operating as the ball handler. Yet, notice how no Celtics player other than Al Horford (who is the screener) moves?
There are no pin-downs, no cuts, no decoy actions — nothing. So, what happens if Miami kills that screening action by staying glued to Tatum? The offense resets, and now they’re up against the clock to set up and flow into a new offensive move.
From time to time, we will get a decoy action like the clip above. Here we see the Celtics running something out of their ‘twirl’ series before Jaylen Brown drains his jumper in Adebayo’s face.
Moments like the one above are encouraging. It shows the Celtics ‘can’ do the things which a five-out offense requires to succeed in the modern NBA. The problem is, being able to do something and consistently doing it are two totally different sides of the same coin. So, forgive my lack of shock when Marcus Smart admitted that the Celtics ‘sometimes get tired’ of doing the little things needed to win.
“We get tired of doing the little things sometimes,” Smart said. “I think that showed exactly what we were talking about earlier – our spacing. We have a lot of great players, but when we’re all on top of each other, nobody can be great. When you’ve got a good defensive team like Miami, they make you pay for that. So, we gotta make sure we do those little things, and we can’t get bored with those. And we’ve gotta realize what got us the lead and what was working for us.”
Of course, the ‘little things’ are more than just moving without the ball and looking to create for others in a selfless manner, but they are two primary areas where the Celtics need to be better.
I’m not saying that there’s no place for isolation basketball, either. I understand and appreciate the place isolation matchups have within a postseason setting and why having guys that can call their own number is held in such high regard. But I am saying when you’re committing to playing within a certain structure, you have to commit to all of it, not just the general overview.
Moments like the one in this clip, where the primary and secondary action have been taken away by the defense, so one of your star players just goes and gets you a bucket, are integral to a highly functional offense.
Possessions like this one, though, where everyone stands around watching someone go one-on-one with no movement until the defense shuts things down is where Boston’s problems lie. I also want to specify that this isn’t a Joe Mazzulla issue, either. We saw a similar malaise during the latter part of Brad Stevens’ tenure. Ime Udoka also struggled to get that movement flowing during stretches of his tenure.
The reason Miami has made it all the way back to the conference finals, despite being a team that lost their first play-in game, is because they work as a unit. Everyone is part of the grand scheme, and they operate in a manner that is conducive to their coach's vision.
Can we say the same about the way the Celtics approach games where their backs aren’t against the wall?
If the Celtics are going to have any legitimate chance of not only progressing onto the NBA Finals but actually winning the whole thing, then their commitment to fulfilling all of the necessary requirements for a five-out pace and space system will certainly need to improve.
After all, the Celtics have all the talent, depth, and leadership they need to be a successful team in the NBA; at this point, it’s the willingness to execute the minutiae. Hopefully, we see that commitment on Friday night when they attempt to draw back level in the series.