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Positive Takeaways From Brad Stevens’ Offense

Only five NBA teams are humiliated by a less effective offense than the one currently deployed by the Boston Celtics. But being that Thanksgiving is right around the corner, here are a couple parts of that offense we should all be grateful for. (Most notably the fact that it’s run by Brad Stevens, a mastermind who tries his damnedest to make lemonade out of moldy, overmatched lemons every single night.)

My personal favorite crease Stevens has placed in the offense comes when the Celtics are running, which is exactly what everyone who watches this team prefer they do just about all the time.

The following few sequences revolve around Jared Sullinger—an absolute barbarian of a power forward who, somehow, has been blessed with soft hands—being fast. For this reason they aren’t frequent (also because Sullinger’s rightfully tasked with battling down low for missed shots) but when they happen it’s golden. Let’s take a look at a few.

The Celtics are in transition, and there’s Sullinger on the left, behind Paul Millsap with nobody on either team positioned below those two on the court.

The design is simple enough, and will be fleshed out even further in the next description below. Basically, Sullinger is the first man down the floor, and the idea here is for a pass to be lobbed over the top of everyone for an uncontested layup.

And that’s what would’ve happened had Millsap not committed a foul. Just looking at the picture above you can see why this quick scheme is so great. First, it gets a bruising forward a shot close to the rim. Second, that shot will probably be uncontested, but if a help defender deserts his man on the three-point line (and in the corner, nonetheless), Sullinger can always hit them for an open shot.

Here’s another play from earlier in the same game. Notice where Sullinger is in relation to all his teammates, one of whom hasn’t even made it up the floor yet? The Atlanta Hawks missed a shot, and Sullinger raced in the opposite direction. Once a few feet in front of the foul line, he stopped, found Al Horford with his right hand, and with his left arm gave Avery Bradley a target.

Atlanta’s defenders are back pedaling, waiting for Boston’s attack. But the Celtics are trudging along slowly on purpose, making sure no help defender will interfere with Sullinger’s well-earned, advantageous position.

Bradley should throw the ball over the top to Sullinger and let him make an easy score (true story: the number one reason Bradley’s in the NBA is because he’s the best player who ever lived at throwing seemingly simple entry passes. That’s actually not a true story) but instead he sees the open space and decides to take his man off the dribble. Sullinger reads it, and sets a pick on Horford. Bradley scores.

More of the same here, this time against the San Antonio Spurs. There’s Sullinger on the right, all ready to put Tim Duncan on his hip.

Every Spur is focused on his man, and no Celtic dares venture inside the three-point line. Once again, this is by Brad Stevens’ design. Sullinger catches the pass from Phil Pressey, and lays it in over a helpless Marco Belinelli (who probably should’ve dropped down much sooner because, you know, he was guarding Gerald Wallace).

These little quick-hit actions are awesome, effective, and are attempted at least once every game. But any defense that does its homework can easily take it away. Transition isn’t a reliable solution, especially in the long-term.

The following play is in the half-court, where Boston’s offense comes to smell like raw sewage. But this particular play is not raw sewage. It’s beautiful, and begins with Jordan Crawford and Kris Humphries up top setting up a side pick-and-roll while Jeff Green cuts from the weak side to the strong side corner.

Once Green drags his man across the court, Bradley cuts diagonally across the lane to set a screen for Brandon Bass.

(Side note: We rarely praise guards who are able to set solid screens, and that’s a shame. The next time you watch an NBA game, take note of who can catch a bigger guy in a pick, and who’s immediately getting bull-dozed. This stuff is overlooked, but can determine whether a play is executed to perfection, or muddled and gross.)

The pick-and-roll at the top is intentionally done for show—with Humphries not even pretending to roll or pop—but that’s all well and good because the point here is for Bass to come off Bradley’s pick.

Now free from Millsap’s grasp, Bass rushes into the open space—created by Green’s clear out—and throws down a perfectly thrown lob from Crawford.

The first option for this play is Bass dunking the ball. But what makes the design so great is what could’ve progressed had the Hawks taken that away. Let’s say Millsap and Kyle Korver switch on the screen. Millsap is now on Bradley and Korver is on Bass. With plenty of time on the shot clock, those are two mismatches that play heavily into Boston’s favor.

If Crawford isn’t comfortable throwing a dangerous lob pass (hahahaha totally implausible, I know. But try to bare with me) he would then quickly swing the ball over to Bradley on the opposite wing.

From there, the ball could either be entered to Bass on the block (Korver is not Dikembe Mutombo, and Bass has displayed a much improved post-up game this season) or, depending how Millsap is guarding the perimeter, Bradley could launch an open shot or drive by the slower defender.

The stuff highlighted in this article is a speck of sand to the Celtics’ beach of an offense. But, hopefully, they still do a suitable job showing why Stevens is well-regarded as one of the league’s most creative minds. His offense is quick, fun, and designed to boost his player’s confidence, which is basically perfect for a rebuilding team that has no relevant big picture expectations.

Along those lines, this post isn’t as detailed as I’d like, but “Thanksgiving-related travel” beats “available writing hours” every single November. But more plays and similar situations will be broken down as the season drags on. With Stevens in front, the playbook is sure to keep evolving.

Michael Pina has bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth, and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

  • GowGow

    Love it when you can find positive among all these negative minded writers. Good work, Michael.

  • Shaun

    Love the analysis, great work.