For the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed that way Boston Celtics they struggled to fit into any of their offensive kits. Where Miami heat they led action after action, the Celtics tended to stick to simple pick-and-roll kits, and the rest of the team was on the perimeter.
The more Miami won the ball, the less fluid the Boston offensive became. Great shots were discarded in favor of good, wide-open looks at open-looking looks. The attack that coined the term “Mazzulla ball” seemed to be just a distant memory.
However, in Game 4, with their backs against the wall, the Celtics dusted off their playbook and went back to some of the things that led them to the Conference Finals. Painting once again had a certain level of importance. Weak actions followed what was happening with the ball. And most importantly, there was the ease with which the Celtics approached the game.
Here are some of my favorite offensive moves from Game 4.
It was the opening game. Jayson Tatum’s quick tack pick, ball touch, kick, and Al Horford sinks a three-pointer. The game was urgent, the kind of urgency you have when you want to set the tone. Sure, there was no fixed game, but that’s what the Celtics have built their offensive on all season: quick decisions, defensive pressure, touch of paint, getting the right reading.
That first game seemed to set the tone for the Celtics, and the fluidity of the offense began to pick up momentum.
The above possession is reminiscent of the Heat’s offense in this series, with movement taking place on both sides of the pitch, involving the team’s two best players, thus forcing the defense to disperse.
On the strengths, we see Marcus Smart setting a pin for Jaylen Brown. On the weak side, Derrick White initiates a wedge screen to get into Jayson Tatum’s position. Suddenly there is a lane for Brown which Tatum reads and starts moving back towards the weak side corner for an exit pass should Jimmy Butler hit the shot as he spins to protect the rim.
While the shot may not have landed, the process was solid.
To open the second quarter, the Celtics went into elbow close-up action. We are all used to Boston leading this set, but the speed with which they executed it was impressive. Blink and you’ll miss the hand and wonder where the ball was supposed to start. Almost immediately after the ball leaves Horford’s hands on a dribble shot, Horford starts to run into a corner where Malcolm Brogdon finds him to catch and score.
Crazy how much speed, aim and execution can do for a crime, right?
Just a few possessions later, the Celtics go into something of their “spin” series as they again try to feed Horford with a rock above the perimeter. Note how Grant Williams is able to secure his position inside the paint on his throw, largely due to the attention Boston’s attack beyond the three-point line requires.
It’s also worth mentioning how Bam Adebayo finds himself in a difficult position because of this possession, as he is forced to make a decision between guarding Tatum and Horford during the Celtics’ spin sequence, thus creating confusion for defending the strong Miami perimeter side.
This action was my favorite of the entire first half. An exit screen for Tatum followed by a Robert Williams flare screen which he then slides in to line up just below the basket. Tatum’s decision to send the ball back to Brown forces Butler to turn to Brown in the corner, leaving Rob Williams open for a lob pass.
It’s simple, selfless basketball that demolishes Miami’s defenses until it starts to crack – then a hammer blow from the lob game. Honestly, beautiful basketball at the elite level.
At the start of the third, the Celtics go into a “ramming series” where a screen is set down for a player who then sets a screen back (ripping). From this point on, the ball carrier is likely to have a mismatch and may go down to attack the basket. However, we’re talking about the other half – you know, the one where Tatum decided to pull up his shoes and play star basketball?
So it should come as no surprise that he goes straight to a pull-up with one dribble and knocks him down with little to no resistance from the Miami defense, courtesy of Butler, who was caught on Horford’s screen. If you’re wondering, yes, the Celtics used their “ram streak” last year under Ime Udoka.
As the third quarter draws to a close, the Celtics perform a punch action (entry pass) to give Tatum a stone in the center post. The quick strike transitions to a no-dribble pull-up for a flashback-style bucket to help Boston extend their lead.
The reason I liked this possession is because it goes against all of Boston’s offensive rules and as such gives them an advantage when they want to make the defense guess. There is no paint touching, no circumferential screening action, and no pressure on the rim. Rather, you feed your best player where they feel comfortable and live with the results – that’s how you empower your stars in the important moments.
I see! This possession ends with an airball; how is it possible that this is one of my favorite things? Honestly, it’s because of the process. I think Grant Williams deserved flowers for setting up the goal that freed Al Horford and allowed the Celtics to blow up Miami’s defense zone.
Horford’s touch pass was a gratuitous play that put White in position to score. There was no final product, but it is an example of a team playing basketball cohesively and trying to solve problems as an individual, not as a group of individuals.
Finally, this exchange action between Tatum and Smart where Tatum slashes his man face to face to get a pass while he was on the move was hilarious. In the second half of the game, Tatum upped his game and seemed undefensible most of the time. So seeing him trust his teammates and know the ball will find him on a throw is an encouraging sign of unity from a team that has a good chance of advancing to Game 5.
Of course, the offensive side of the court wasn’t the only place the Celtics increased their intensity. Throughout Game 4, Boston played a solid defense that managed to stop Jimmy Butler and avoid dominating the lanes – but that’s an entirely different article.
For now, the Celtics finally have momentum in Game 5, and as many of us have said in recent days, they just need to win one and then we have the series.