Throughout the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it felt as though the Boston Celtics struggled to flow into any of their offensive sets. Where the Miami Heat ran action after action, the Celtics tended to stick to simple pick-and-roll sets, with the remainder of the team situated around the perimeter.
The more Miami scored the ball, the less fluid Boston’s offense became. Great shots were being passed up for good ones, wide-open looks for open looks. The offense that had coined the term “Mazzulla ball” appeared to be nothing but a distant memory.
Yet, in Game 4, with their backs against the wall, the Celtics dusted off their playbook and got back to some of the things that got them to the conference finals in the first place. Paint touches once again had a level of importance. Weakside actions happened in unison with whatever was taking place on the ball. And most importantly, there was freedom with which the Celtics approached the game.
Here are some of my favorite offensive actions from Game 4.
This was the opening play of the game. A quick rip-through from Jayson Tatum off the catch, paint touch, kick out, and Al Horford sinks the three. There was an urgency to this play, the sort of urgency you have when you’re looking to set the tone. Sure, there was no set play, yet this is what the Celtics have built their offense around all season: quick decisions, pressure the defense, touch the paint, make the right read.
That opening play appeared to set the tone for the Celtics, and the offensive fluidity began to gather pace from there.
The above possession looks reminiscent of the Heat’s offense this series, with movement happening on both sides of the court, involving the team’s two best players, thus forcing the defense to remain spread out.
On the strong side, we see Marcus Smart set a pin down for Jaylen Brown. On the weak side, Derrick White initiates a wedge screen to get Jayson Tatum post position. Suddenly, there is a driving lane for Brown, which Tatum reads and begins to shift back toward the weak side corner so that there is an outlet pass should Jimmy Butler impact the shot as he rotates over to protect the rim.
While the shot may not have fallen, the process was solid.
To open the second quarter, the Celtics went into an elbow zoom action. We’re all used to seeing Boston run this set by now, but the speed at which they executed it was impressive. Blink, and you’ll miss the hand-off and wonder where the ball was to begin the play. Almost as soon as the ball leaves Horford’s hands on the dribble hand-off, he begins to pop into the corner, where Malcolm Brogdon finds him for the catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Crazy what speed, purpose, and execution can do for an offense, isn’t it?
Just a few possessions later, the Celtics flow into something out of their ‘twirl’ series as they once again look to feed Horford the rock above the perimeter. Notice how Grant Williams is able to secure his position inside of the paint on his roll, too, primarily due to the attention Boston’s offense is demanding beyond the three-point line.
It’s also worth mentioning how Bam Adebayo is put in a difficult situation on this possession as he’s forced to make a decision between guarding Tatum and Horford throughout the Celtics' twirl sequence, thus causing confusion for Miami’s strong-side perimeter defense.
This action was my favorite from the entire first half. An exit screen for Tatum, followed by a flare screen from Robert Williams, which he then slips to position himself right underneath the basket. Tatum’s decision to send the ball back to Brown forces Butler to rotate over to Brown in the corner, thus leaving Rob Williams open for the lob pass.
It’s simple, unselfish basketball that chips away at Miami’s defense until it begins to crack - then the hammer blow from the lob play. Honestly, beautiful basketball at an elite level.
Early in the third, the Celtics go to their ‘ram series’ where a down screen is set for a player that then sets a back (rip) screen. From here, the ball-handler will likely have a mismatch and can get downhill to attack the basket. However, this is the second half we’re talking about — you know, the one where Tatum decided to pull up his bootstraps and play some stellar basketball?
So, it should come as no surprise that he goes straight into a one-dribble pull-up and knocks it down with little-to-no resistance from Miami’s defense, courtesy of Butler getting caught up on Horford’s screen. In case you’re wondering, yes, the Celtics used their ‘ram series’ a bunch last year under Ime Udoka.
As the third quarter is drawing to an end, the Celtics run a punch action (post-entry pass) to give Tatum the rock in the mid-post. A quick bump flows into a no-dribble pull-up for a throwback-style bucket to help extend Boston’s lead.
The reason why I liked this possession is that it goes against all of Boston’s offensive principles and, as such, gives them an edge when looking to keep the defense guessing. There’s no paint touch, no perimeter screening action, and no rim pressure. Rather, you’re feeding your best player in a spot where he feels comfortable and living with the results — that’s how you empower your stars in big moments.
I get it! This possession ends in an airball; how could this be one of my favorite possessions? Honestly, it’s because of the process. I think Grant Williams deserves his flowers for setting the cross-screen that sprung Al Horford free and allowed the Celtics to blow up Miami’s zone defense.
The touch pass from Horford was an unselfish touch that put White in a position to score. The end product wasn’t there, but this is an example of a team playing cohesive basketball and looking to problem-solve as a unit rather than as a group of individuals.
Finally, this give-and-go action between Tatum and Smart where Tatum faces cuts his man to receive the pass while on the move was a fun one. Throughout the second half of play, Tatum raised his level of play and, for the most part, seemed unguardable. So, to see him trust his teammates and know the ball would find him on the cut is an encouraging sign of unity from a team that has the odds firmly stacked against them heading into Game 5.
Of course, the offensive side of the court wasn’t the only place where the Celtics upped their intensity. For the entirety of Game 4, Boston played a robust brand of defense that managed to contain Jimmy Butler and avoid him from dominating in the lanes — but that’s a totally different article.
For now, the Celtics finally have a slither of momentum heading into Game 5, and as many of us have said in recent days, they only need to win one, and then we’ve got ourselves a series.