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Identifying The Brad Stevens Effect

One game into his tenure with the Boston Celtics, Brad Stevens’ fingerprints are already all over this team. Two nights against the Toronto Raptors they played smart, hard, disciplined, and together.

There were hiccups here and there (mostly by players making their NBA debut), but overall the product on the floor was solid. As you’ll likely read on this site and others that cover the Celtics repeatedly throughout the year: this season is about process, not results.

If you’re hung up on a loss to the Raptors, Boston very well could’ve won that game had it not been for the league’s stubborn and ironic enforcement of the delay of game rule (seriously, how does tapping a ball after it falls through the net punishable by free points?! I understand the long-term goal and why consequences need to be severe, but we’re in the regular season already. Preseason is over. If guys are still touching the ball who cares? The sanctioned free-throws slow the game down and make watching it a less pleasurable experience. Rant over) and a late-game sequence that saw both Courtney Lee and Gerald Wallace miss wide open fast break layups only to watch Amir Johnson come down and nail a three moments later. (Johnson came into that game with 10 made three-pointers in his eight year career.)

Vitor Faverani and Kris Humphries were mostly successful defending the pick-and-roll, sagging back, recognizing opposing skill-sets and understanding what it was they were trying to accomplish on a possession by possession basis. They were allowing Toronto’s ball-handlers to shoot, giving them plenty of space between the three-point line and the elbow to fire away. Having a coach who’s able to implement an effective defensive game plan while simultaneously masking his player’s limitations (Faverani is not Usain Bolt) is a very good thing.

Process, process, process. The Celtics repeatedly took advantage of mismatches in the post, attacking weaker defenders in high percentage situations. When D.J. Augustin appeared to crap all over himself trying to defend Jordan Crawford in a third quarter pick-and-roll, the Celtics kept going at him the same way until Raptors head coach Dwane Casey removed Augustin from the game.

If Boston is going to have any variation of success this season, this is how it’ll happen—48 minutes of intelligent play. Being perfect isn’t expected. But repeating the same mistake, as the Celtics did failing to defend the same play twice in an eight-minute span, is tough to swallow.

In the picture above, Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry has just set a back screen on Gerald Wallace (who, by the way, is impossible not to like when his man has the ball) to free up Rudy Gay.

Instead of switching, which wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world here, Wallace follows Gay as he cuts baseline. Jordan Crawford just sort of stands and watches the play develop. As the strong side help defender, Kelly Olynyk is rightfully petrified of leaving his man too open in the corner, so he doesn’t slide further into the paint, even though it appears he recognizes what Toronto is trying to do. DeMar DeRozan, up top with the ball, whips it to Gay, who dunks it.

It’s a simple, well-executed play by Toronto. Oh well. Better luck next time, right? But when next time is a few minutes into the next quarter, and the Celtics allow the exact same result, it’s problematic.

It’s the same exact play with altered personnel. Lee and Avery Bradley are now defending the weakside back screen, Amir Johnson holds the ball up top instead of DeRozan, and in the strong side corner it’s Jeff Green on Gay. At the point of attack, Augustin sets a screen trying to free up Landry Fields.

Unlike Wallace, who traced Gay’s steps under Lowry’s screen, here we have Lee going above Augustin. Knowing he’s already a step behind Fields, Lee figures this route allows the opportunity for a steal. He’s wrong, and the Celtics allow two easy points at the rim, but it’s no one player’s fault. Let’s start with Faverani, who first treated Tyler Hansbrough like he’s Mark Price, then Jonas Valanciunas like he’s Reggie Miller. Sag down, big guy. Shuffle in and out of the paint and muck things up a bit. You’re the only shot blocker on the floor in both scenarios, so standing 15 feet from the rim doesn’t do Boston much good.

We already talked about Olynyk, who didn’t really do anything wrong, but in the picture above we see Green trying to velcro his jersey into Gay’s. What’s the point? Are you that afraid Gay might knock down a long-two? The guy is doing you a favor by not standing behind the three-point line! Green should be ready to help, positioned closer to the paint. If he were, Johnson wouldn’t have 25 feet of leeway on each side to glide that pass into Fields.

Lee’s ultimate decision to go above the screen was costly, and there’s no reason why he and Bradley couldn’t just switch on this play and still walk out with their heads held high. Teams will run this on Boston until they learn how to defend it. Judging from everything else we’ve already seen from Stevens, that shouldn’t take too long.

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  • GowGow

    Can we have a video on these plays?

  • Why is Crawford playing up so high? DeRozan could have lobbed the ball to two different Raptors in that first play.

    In the second play, Bradley just needs to switch. I'm surprised he didn't.