The Celtics boasted encouraging offensive performances against the Bucks, Warriors and Knicks last week through challenging circumstances.
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum passed more often. Brown led second units in a 114-107 win over the Knicks on Saturday and Josh Richardson exploded as a scorer in his return from COVID-19. Ime Udoka continues to seek progress on offense, without sacrificing the group’s defensive identity like they did late on the west coast trip. It finally happened.
“We were holding the ball. We shot 15 threes in the first quarter and they were all off of great penetration kicks or quick decisions,” Udoka said. “Then we got a little stagnant in the second and got it to 12 three-pointers, got back to driving-and-kicking. We liked the looks we were getting and were shooting it well overall … we passed up some open shots early, then got stagnate late in the clock … more so than the settling, it was the kind of shots we took, contest, late shot clock threes … to our credit, they bounced back, responded … and started playing faster again. We got some isolations and guys started finding each other.”
Losing Grant Williams as a floor spacer and Al Horford as a secondary facilitator to COVID protocol projected to hurt. Udoka admitted sharpshooter Sam Hauser would’ve gotten a chance, but he went down too. Then Romeo Langford got hurt.
Considering Brown and Tatum played 68 and 75 minutes respectively across this weekend’s back-to-back, the progress they built offensively mattered, even if it played out unevenly in the second half against New York. Boston, a team with a 108 offensive rating, averaged 113 points over its last three games through inconsistent lineups. Brown and Tatum became the constant.
Movement helped. plus a willingness to screen, get off the ball and find the corners and cutters. Dennis Schröder, out sick against the Warriors and Knicks, wasn’t missed too much. The Celtics turned toward a Brown-Tatum two-man game, more Marcus Smart minutes on-ball as a playmaker and funneled the rest to Brown, who averaged 4.0 assists (19.4 AST%) per game since his return, compared to Schröder’s 4.8 APG (23.7%) in far more ball time. Payton Pritchard found his shot in expanded opportunity against New York.
What worked over this recent stretch and what needs to continue? CLNS Media took a deep dive on Boston’s offense over the last week.
1. Playing through Brown
Brown started his night against the Knicks attacking the three-point line against New York’s smaller guards who slowly contested Boston’s shooters in the first half. In the second quarter, the Celtics ran Brown downhill off the catch and around some screen action, giving him opportunities to drive-and-finish, but more often kick to teammates on a night where the Knicks defended him well in the paint.
Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson’s size posed problems for Brown and Tatum getting to the rim. That, along with matchups and the Knicks’ slow rotations, likely led the pair to shoot and settle often. Encouragingly, Brown is still finishing 69.6% inside this season despite some botched attempts on Saturday.
The Celtics ran Brown from the wing area around screens following catches multiple times against the Knicks. His transition game remains a constant and he’s starting to cut into open space more often.
Brown also benefited from Enes Freedom screens. Freedom could stand to teach Williams III how to engage defenders with more contact on those plays while still generating quality rolls.
We’ll get into the pick-and-roll game shortly, and why it hasn’t become a consistent part of Boston’s offense. Most of it goes back to the ball-handlers, but Williams III’s approach in these situations always leans toward slipping. That can make it difficult for the ball-handlers to score in these circumstances. Defenders often break right through Williams’ picks.
There are certain off-ball situations where Williams screens and should continue to engage all the way through, or….at all.
The Brown pick-and-roll showed mixed results Saturday, starting on the play above.
On another play, Enes Freedom rolled to Brown’s left and opened the right side for Brown to drive and finish past Robinson. Marcus Smart initially showed screen action with Freedom on the play, pulling three Knicks defenders, including Robinson, out of the middle of the floor and only requiring that Brown beat the big man downhill.
A failed P&R saw Robinson cut off Brown’s driving lane to Freedom’s left and forcing a pull-up air ball. Brown and Tatum rank around league average as pick-and-roll ball-handlers. They could both use more than 8.6 possessions per game in those spots for not only repetitions, but to help Boston’s offense.
Movement by other players and intentional screening action is required to clear space for middle of the floor in the absence of shooting. Evan Fournier’s ability to pinch into the lane and stop this action by ignoring Josh Richardson is a real problem, especially with Richardson on a hot streak.
3. Where’s Rob
Let’s talk more about Robert Williams III, who ranks in the 87th percentile as a roller, scoring 1.38 points per possession.
The Celtics only get him 1.5 possessions per game in those plays, which feels criminal. Marcus Smart is his most consistent passing partner, but not a great creator for himself in the P&R (14th percentile). Williams, who only receives 17.4 passes each game and passes over 23 times. Combine that with 5.6 shots per game and he appears severely underutilized.
Smart found him for the icing basket against New York with a difficult pass over Noel, who held his own in the lane against Tatum’s misdirection. Schröder and Smart, whenever that combo returns, make it even harder given their minimal shooting threat in those circumstances.
The Celtics botched another chance to get him points only a play later, Smart grabbing Tatum’s miss inside, carrying it out to the perimeter before misfiring a lob to Williams on a play where Rob had this much space.
Williams carries some accountability for his position too though. His short-range jump shot disappeared this season. When he catches the ball in a stationary position in the lane, he’s struggled to do anything except pass the ball back out.
His free throw shooting (1-for-5) tortured Boston against Golden State and will surely become part of a bigger strategy by opposing teams to negate his vertical spacing from the Celtics’ offense. Williams needs to just and improve over the length of his contract to dream of reaching some of his fan’s highest aspirations.
Worse, Williams struggled to control offensive rebounds and entry passes in the lane this week. His hands aren’t usually a problem, so that’s probably an anomaly, but this entire season is becoming weird for Williams. He’s disrupting on defense, playing more minutes and fouling less often while somehow no more involved in Boston’s offense. His turnovers are up in spot moments and need to fall relative to his usage.
This is more on the Celtics’ facilitators though, who have relegated Williams III to an offensive rebounder. He’s talented in that area too, so he followed dribble drives like Brown’s inside to help beat the Knicks. That’s pigeonholing a player who brings so much more to the table though.
The Celtics should involve Williams around Brown and Tatum’s two-man game. Add him to the equation of doubt and freeing him away from the extra attention those two draw when they screen for each other.
4. Brown and Tatum off-ball
They’ve passed to each other far more often, but they’re going even further. Leading each other into open space. Screening for each other. Yes, screening for each other.
Udoka told Brown and Tatum to trust their teammates, find other ways to get involved when their shots aren’t falling and get off the ball. They did that this past week, and their continued progress learning to play with each other is the biggest hope that the offense turned a corner.
They went three straight games throwing at least 20 passes between each other in a season where they average six. The immediate uptick in their connection after Brown missed nearly one month of regular action with a hamstring injury underscores Udoka’s emphasis, likely aided by conversations through the west coast road trip while Brown sat and various film sessions aimed to improve the offense and stabilize the defense.
It would’ve stood to reason they’d need time once Brown returned to integrate him back into the playmaking circle, if they did it at all. Instead, they’ve never looked better playing off each other.
The pair settled often Saturday too often, and they need to piece together a longer run of facilitating and two-man games before starting to sprinkle further action like pick-and-rolls and become proof of their potential together. Teams expect, like Smart said after the infamous Chicago collapse, the Jays to attack them head on. When both bend the defense to a strong side, the opposing team seems shocked when the other gets the ball after on the weak side.
Tatum now throws more passes than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brown appears ready to begin the passing coaching gauntlet Udoka put Tatum through earlier this year. Tatum’s willingness to play off-ball and the early returns from Brown in that role provide hope that Brown can progress.
Tatum, who has far more experience, simply needs to cut down the turnovers and bad decisions on the ball, so Celtics can both simultaneously and develop their playmaking.
5. The Richardson Revelation
Richardson’s 27-point nearly perfect game that ranked among the top-15 of his career speaks for itself. Sean Grande argued it might’ve been the best by a Celtic this year, and he’s affirming Udoka and Brad Stevens’ prediction that Richardson could get back to his early-career shooting numbers. Even acknowledging his recent 60% stretch from three is unsustainable, his season efficiency is 40.5% (33.9% before last three games).
Extra ball time helped, as Celtics scorers shuffle in and out of the rotation and Richardson’s limited role off the ball could still cap the ceiling on his impact. Still, he’s a malleable player who can also catch-and-shoot, cut and find his shot from mid-range. The three is only one part of his impact and you never need to question his defense.
With Brown, Smart and Tatum struggling, Richardson took over the offense in the fourth quarter, shooting 4-for-4, drawing free throws and moving non-stop off the ball.
He regularly initiates offense, resets himself or cuts to involve himself in the offense. Richardson’s putting his words about needing to make yourself available as a Tatum teammate into action.
He can do it from all areas. Richardson shoots 56.3% at the rim and 55.9% from mid-range. As a disruptive defender, he creates transition opportunities that lead himself to the basket and set up Pritchard for a key three-pointer down the stretch.
Considering his current floor spacing and ball-handling that’s good enough to rank in the 70th percentile as a pick-and-roll defender, along with his own ability to get shots off, it’s hard to argue against him as a closer. He’s the best wing the Celtics have to play alongside Brown and Tatum, and probably makes Schröder all the more expendable as the trade deadline approaches.
Richardson shouldn’t be everything for the offense though. He struggled in Philadelphia and Dallas as a full-time point guard. His defense would likely suffer in top-line matchups, as it did against the Clippers, where he got smoked repeatedly in he fourth quarter. The shooting numbers will likely come back to earth. That’s why Udoka will keep him in his bench scoring role. In terms of activity though, the Celtics may not have a better option late in games.
Who does this play against Robinson with nothing else happening?
For what it’s worth, the Smart-Richardson-Tatum-Brown-Williams lineup has outscored four opponents in 20 minutes by 31 points per 100 possessions.