If you haven’t been watching the Boston Celtics this year, you are missing out on the rise of a promising young head coach, Brad Stevens. Not only does Stevens have the Celtics overachieving this year, he’s shown a knack for clever schemes and majestic out-of-bounds plays that have served as conduits for big baskets in key comments. After a week in which Stevens and his motley crew of overachievers pulled off a few more impressive wins, I went into the film vault and took a look at how the head coach utilizes his personnel in these special situations.
What I found out was that the emerging effectiveness of Stevens on these plays is rooted in both simplicity and complexity at the same time. In order to fully understand what may seem like a contradictory statement, let’s dive into a few examples.
In a recent game against the Magic, the Celtics take the ball out on the side early in the fourth quarter. With a lineup of Tyler Zeller, Jonas Jerebko, Luigi Datome, Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas, Stevens opts for a set with the foundation of an old NBA staple: floppy action.
While floppy action has been in playbooks even before Kevin Garnett was in the league, what’s unique about Stevens' use of it is two-fold. First, floppy sets can counter into pick-and-roll, like the one between Zeller and Thomas, but rarely do they do so with “lift action” behind it; the movement that frees Jerebko for the open shot. That this play has both is result of both Stevens recognizing personnel -- Jerebko is a mobile stretch four capable of screening to free Thomas on the wing and relocating behind him for that shot -- and tweaking actions inside the traditional set -- like Zeller sprinting from opposite to screen for Thomas.
The second part of this is what is becoming a staple of the Boston teams under Stevens: their spacing and execution. You probably need to go back and look at the video, but look how diligent Datome and Smart are about getting to spots along the perimeter, sliding away from the ball on dribbling penetration and opening up the floor. This type of subtle, yet integral movement, is evident in both all the C’s out-of-bounds plays and their regular offense as well (their offensive struggles are more because of guys being unable to convert shots than execution or play design).
Later on in that same Orlando game, we see Stevens do something similar with another common concept in the NBA. This time instead of floppy, it’s hammer action -- the play type that has been made ‘famous’ by the Spurs.
What’s unique about this is how Stevens once again adds a new wrinkle to an old, increasingly stale (because teams are more on the lookout for it) action. Typically in hammer action, the second big, in this case Brandon Bass, is usually the one lurking opposite the ball ready to screen for the shooter drifting down to the corner. Stevens flips this and instead has Evan Turner, whose initial movement makes him seem unimportant to the play, set the backscreen to free Bass in the corner (It should be noted that the Magic’s defense forced Thomas to make a smart read on the fly to punch it middle in order to find Bass coming off Turner’s screen). Had it won the game, such a clever and unexpected wrinkle would have been praised by League Pass aficionados on Twitter. Sadly, it happened in a meaningless comeback in an ugly loss, but it doesn’t make it any less brilliant.
And it’s not as if Stevens is tied to tweaking old NBA standbys in order to craft clever plays. Check out this gem against the Lakers in late February.
Though this is happening a little bit more frequently (and is actually a concept in Atlanta’s offense), the idea of using deep post catches and screening behind it is still a relatively new idea. It also, as you can see with the Lakers, makes teams switch off just for a bit because it’s a natural tendency when the ball goes inside to peak down low. The other plus side is that most shooters -- in this case Avery Bradley -- would probably prefer the angle of their cut (toward the hoop/ball), their approach (squaring up, for a right-handed shooter, is easier going left to right) and the delivery of the pass (inside-out) rather than some of the more demanding movements we see in other out-of-bounds plays.
How their head coach is managing these situations is making a (improving!) Celtics' team six games under .500 a League Pass priority. Because it doesn’t matter if your reason for watching NBA basketball is entertainment or enlightenment, Brad Stevens has got you covered either way.