BOSTON — Al Horford could receive a screen from Marcus Smart or Derrick White this season. He’s seen Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo go from setting picks to having them set by others. On a team featuring a devastating roller in Robert Williams III last season, the pick-and-pop became Horford’s go-to on offense.
The Celtics will not only utilize screens to free Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown when they receive extra pressure from defenses in training camp, they also want to create advantages and keep defenses off-balance by utilizing layers of playmaking.That’s where Smart did damage in a two-man game with Tatum last season, Boston scoring 1.05 points per 100 possessions when Tatum screened for Smart, and 1.38 PPP with White.
White found his stride in the short roll against Miami in the east finals. Now, both he and Smart could become primary screeners to help Boston become a more dynamic offense, connecting more solidly, creating more mismatches and separation.
“(We’re) still doing a lot of the similar things to what we did last year,” White said. “So just reading the defense, getting the right screening angle, whether you’re a guard or a big. During the playoffs it felt like I was screening more than the bigs were.”
Interim head coach Joe Mazzulla took over the Celtics last month not wanting to change the team’s identity. He did intend to expand on what the team did offensively, finishing No. 1 offensively from Jan. 23 until the end of the season (120.2 offensive rating), but fading to 110.3 points per 100 possessions due to turnovers and stagnancy. The team rose a long way from its struggles against zone during the 2020 playoffs, Mazzulla’s first year on the staff, and he saw more growth potential through wider offensive involvement from players up and down the Celtics rotation. Anyone can screen for anyone in Boston’s lineups, and they will.
Where Ime Udoka emphasized Tatum and Brown becoming primary ball-handlers around this time last year, the Celtics have thrown Malcolm Brogdon second unit duties at the point. Horford played above the arc in the win over Charlotte, feeding Tatum post touches to work the ball back out toward the perimeter. The team saw post cuts available and started emphasizing them, leading to a 134-point offensive explosion 57.1% shooting.
“We’re getting everybody involved,” Smart told CLNS Media. “We want to be able to be unguardable with all five positions and really keep teams on their toes. Either me or Derrick having the ball, or Jayson and Jaylen having the ball, or Malcolm having the ball or Payton, we’re coming down and being the screeners, or Al or Grant, just really allowing us to read the game and make reads off of defenders.”
Brown and Tatum both finished with usage rates hovering around 30% last season, shedding a few points this preseason in favor of Brogdon. White and Smart’s roles remain similar, the only difference being they’ve started together, effectively giving the Celtics five creators in their starting lineup. In the ultra-small unit that Mazzulla experimented with in the opener, those two would be the best screeners and rollers on the floor without a big.
White screens naturally, popping above and rolling beneath his strong off-ball screens. He’s like a roving guardian for Tatum, and proved an upgrade at setting picks over Williams III, whose screens didn’t always land.
Smart’s off-ball sense improved last year too as he balanced passing duties with trying to play next to Boston’s two stars. His greatest challenge remains finishing passing sequences on the perimeter. As a screener, Smart’s sense for creating mismatches helps the offense through stretches of isolation play necessary for Tatum and Brown. He’ll more often pass into the off-ball actions then reposition for shots, ideally closer to the rim.
Smaller lineups continued to defend at a high level, giving those units a chance to thrive in the regular season while Williams III is out. Luke Kornet, Mfiondu Kabengele, Blake Griffin and Noah Vonleh have all tried to make cases to fill Williams III’s spot, with that pick-and-roll chemistry with the starters remaining as the biggest hurdle in them breaking through. The Celtics committed three offensive fouls in the Hornets opener.
“A lot of it is knowing what shots guys are trying to get and then really just knowing how other teams are guarding, and I just kind of figured it out getting a lot of reps with it,” Kornet told CLNS. “That definitely helps a lot, but growing familiar with the game, with who you’re bringing into the action, what kind of advantage you’re going to have, changes what you’re going to be doing. You just get a lot of experience with it and try to put them in the best position possible and go from there.”
It’s all about finding the right angles, they said. Brown spent extra time along the sidelines and in practice working through screening and rolling actions with Kabengele. Partially to help himself, intent on becoming an on-ball creator, while thriving on his way to a 23-for-39 (58.9%) shooting start to the preseason.
Tatum became the rare star to embrace setting picks late last season as he searched for ways to stay involved through shooting slumps. Brown stands to get involved in that area more than any other Celtic, with Payton Pritchard getting in on the fun as part of his efforts to become a more impactful off-ball scorer.
The Brown-Tatum screening combination appeared in the preseason opener, an exciting way to create indecision and ease each other’s scoring burden. The same way Brown and Tatum had to embrace passing to each other early last year, they’ll help each other with picks. Even ghost actions where they cross paths in the same area threw Toronto’s aggressive scheme off-balance, like Brogdon did to set up Tatum’s real pick-and-roll.
The Celtics tortured Brooklyn by forcing the switch in those situations, allowing Tatum a clear lane to slide into the post and catch the ball closer to the basket against Seth Curry and Kyrie Irving’s defense.
“All of our guys having an awareness to how do you create two-on-ones, and how do you take advantage of those I think can really help our team … I think Smart’s great at it, Derrick’s great at it,” Mazzulla told CLNS. “I think having Malcolm now, who’s great at it, and I think J.T. and J.B. are also really open to screening … you have to find ways to get good shots against really good teams and having multiple guys that are able to screen is an effective way for them.”
It makes sense that Boston would want the ball in its playmaker’s hands on the roll. They’ve proven most reliable as scoring and passing threats in the low post area. Part of Boston’s NBA Finals struggles stemmed from the Warriors comfortably switching smaller players onto Grant Williams and Horford, with Grant spending the offseason working on becoming a more flexible shot maker. He’s a capable post scorer going back to Tennessee.
He’s screening more often too, and given his size and defensive versatility, a more fluid Grant on offense should become a rotation mainstay, and possibly a starter. Udoka often stressed Williams stay in a simplified role last year on offense. Maybe lefty running layups don’t befit that. Good hard screens to create post mismatches do.
“I imagine myself to be a better screener,” Williams said on media day. “Because I think some of our biggest issues last year stemmed from not creating separation, not creating that extra opportunity, and being a roller, being a great presence … not only does the involvement goes up, the usage, but the ability to be versatile.”