How the Celtics run their offense, why Doc Rivers often resorts to small lineups, when it works and when it doesn't, what needs to be done instead, how to do it, and why Red Auerbach would agree.
How the Celtics Run Their Offense
The Celtic offense has been simplistically referred to as "up-tempo" or "fast break" basketball but it's not. The Denver Nuggets last year and in the heady days under Doug Moe were true "fast break" teams that ran, and allowed the opponents to run, hoping to rely on better conditioning in high altitudes towards the end of games. The Celtics offense is more intricate than that.
It's all about fast breaks, secondary breaks, and the Princeton/Sacramento-style half court offense. The key for the Celtics offense is creating and exploiting defensive mismatches. If the ball gets walked up the court, the defense will be able to settle in. If the ball gets pushed up court either on an outlet or on a coast-to-coast dribble, one of three things happens:
(1: Fastest) A fast break. Easy two points with a possible third point if
(2: Faster) A secondary break. Perhaps a quick fast break didn't work but there still may be some time to run a two-on-two or three-on-three secondary break before the rest of the players get back.
(3: Fast) When all else fails, get the ball to the big guys around the elbow and try to post up a little guy in the paint. If done quickly enough, there's no time for help defense to double-team the little guy, or if the entry is denied, the big guy can quickly rotate down to the post. The Celtics offense is almost a tertiary fast break: lots of passing and hard cutting, at speeds approaching fast breaks, in order to create mismatches and quality post play or mid-range jumpers.
Very rarely will the Celtics intentionally isolate anyone one-on-one beyond the three-point line against the opponent's primary defender. Very rarely will they drive into the paint and kick the ball out for a three pointer.
They assume that defenses will rotate but the key to understanding their system is that the right person to rotate is not usually the right person to defend the person getting the ball: it's usually a mismatch. When Doc talks about playing a more consistent brand of basketball, it's because he expects jump shooters to be defended and post players to be bodied up. He's not expecting wide open looks every time down the court (though of course when it's there, everyone has the green light to take it). It's the mismatches that get the points.
Doc is building a team that someday will go deep in the playoffs. In the playoffs, very few jump shooters are undefended. Very few post players are not bodied up. The key is to get Gary posting up a smaller point guard without getting doubled teamed, or getting Ricky to drive past the slower of their perimeter defenders, or getting Raef an extra couple of inches against the sagging defender to get his shot up.
Why Doc Rivers Often Resorts to Small Lineups
The simple answer is that his five best players are small. Back when Danny Ainge was the head coach of the relatively small Phoenix Suns, he had a nice quote, saying he'll put his best players on the court regardless of size and let the opposition worry about matching up. The three best players on the Celtics are Paul Pierce, Gary Payton, and Ricky Davis. Then, at least until recently, Jiri Welsch was next in line and Tony Allen has long been a favorite of Doc's, since before the draft. That's at least four small players right there. Doc usually throws in Raef LaFrentz or Walter McCarty in such situations for the pop-out three.
Of course that's not quite the full answer. Fine, the three best players are relatively small, but why not pair them with Raef and Al Jefferson or Mark Blount or Kendrick Perkins or Tom Gugliotta? There's plenty of big bodies on the roster (though Googs had to roll his right ankle a bit to be a good soldier and get on the laughingly inaccurately named "injured" list). Then it's not really small ball, it's just good basketball. Neither Davis nor Pierce is undersized relative to most swingmen.
The question is clearly: why doesn't Doc play the bigger people?
The answer is because the team needs the ball in its hands.
None of the three Celtics "fast, faster, and fastest breaks" offense can happen without the ball and there are only two ways to get it without giving up points: turnovers and defensive rebounds. Either a shot went up, in which case you need to rebound it if it missed, or it didn't and the ball got turned over. Turnovers could be forced by an individual, such as steals, blocks, and charges, or forced by a team, such as shot clock violations, or unforced, such as errant passes or offensive lane violations.
Given the difficulty the Celtics have in getting defensive rebounds (their best defensive rebounder is a guard), it is no surprise Doc has elected in many circumstances to go small ball in order to try to get more turnovers.
When Does Small Ball Work and When Does Small Ball Not Work
It is easy to tell when small ball is working: the opponents don't get a lot of field goal attempts. On one possession, it's a steal leading to a dunk. On the next possession, it's a 24-second shot clock violation and the Celtics eventually score in their halfcourt set on the other end. On the third possession, a long jump shot misses wildly, the Celtics grab the long rebound, and though the primary break is stopped, their secondary break leads to a three-point play. On the fourth possession, the opposition finally scores off of an offensive putback from a missed mid-range jumper, but the Celtics grab the ball from the net and are able to break off of the made shot to erase the two points on the other end. Four possessions, three field goal attempts for the opponents, Celtics lead by seven on a 9-2 run. You can feel that Boston has the momentum.
It is easy to tell when small ball is not working: the opponents get a lot of field goal attempts. On one possession, an unsuccessful steal attempt lets the point guard penetrate into the wing area, a big guy helps out, and the point finds his own big man standing free under the basket for a dunk. The Celtics run their offense well but happen to miss a mid-range jumper. On the next possession, interior passing by the bigs leads to a good shot attempt in the paint that misses but is cleaned up on the offensive board. The Celtics again run their offense well and get a good driving layup, but it is blocked by a rotating weak side defender. On the third possession, the Celtics start sagging a bit towards the middle to stop the gap in the paint, and unfortunately give up a three-pointer. On the other end, the Celtics get fouled going to the hole and make one of two. On the fourth possession, the opposition scores off of an offensive putback from a missed mid-range jumper, just like in the other example, but now when the Celtics grab the ball from the net they walk it up court because they can feel that they do not have the momentum and they are scared. They end up settling for a three-pointer that clangs out. Four possessions, six field goal attempts for the opponents, Celtics down by eight because of a 9-1 run by the opponents.
Interior passing tends to be the straw that breaks the small ball's back. Teams like Seattle whose big guys can rebound and score but are not the best at interior passing tend to match up well with the Celtics. The small guys stay on the perimeter and do not give up threes, and they also get a chance to cause a lot of turnovers. Teams like Detroit and New Jersey whose big guys are fantastic at interior passing have a field day against the Celtics when they are using their small lineup.
What Needs to be Done Instead
Instead of focusing just on the turnovers to get the ball in Celtic hands, what needs to be done against the versatile big men is to pick the personnel that will instill interior defense, box out and grab defensive rebounds, start the break with quality outlets, and pass well out of the post on the offensive side.
Interior defense does not mean blitzing the pick-and-roll: it means bodying up post defenders, obstructing passing lanes in the paint, and blocking weak side shots. Players like Mark Blount and Walter McCarty are better at fronting their players to deny the entry pass, and blitzing on pick-and-rolls to force the dribbler back where he came from then rotating back to their guy quickly, than they are at one-on-one post defense or obstructing passing lanes or getting weak side blocks. For interior defense, Boston's best bets would be players like Kendrick Perkins, Al Jefferson, and even Raef LaFrentz. Blount also does a good job on one-on-one defense but his relative strength is in his ability to rotate quickly, front, blitz, and retrench.
Players who tend to front will have a much harder time boxing out since they are on the wrong side of the offensive player. Boxing out also means footwork, timing, and prediction is more important than out-jumping the opponents one foot from the rim. The best players for this are LaFrentz and Perkins. Jefferson will get the habit eventually and Blount tends to either find himself in the wrong place or get pushed out of the way.
The best outlet passer off the rebound is Perkins. His strong overhand two-handed pass can reach a streaking teammate seventy feet away.
The best passer out of the post, mainly the high post, has been Blount, especially recently. He has mastered the lob into Pierce under the basket that tends to be good for a couple points a game at least. He is good at feeding the post or taking the 15-footer if he is open. Perkins, however, is also a good candidate.
What needs to be done instead? It's almost blatantly obvious, isn't it? Play Kendrick Perkins.
How to Do What Needs to Be Done
How do you get second-year rookie (you read that right) Perkins more playing time? Do you start him? Whose minutes do you give him? Blount's? Raef's? Hopefully not Jefferson's!
The Celtics had some luck last year when they put rookie Brandon Hunter in the starting lineup. Maybe it's time to give Perk a chance. Both Blount and LaFrentz will find their games improving with a banger and rebounder like Perk in there to help attract some attention in the paint.
There are several problems. One is Perk's propensity to foul. Part of that has been his unfamiliarity with his new physical body. Part of that has been frustration. Part of that has been poor positioning. And part of that has been the explicit instructions by Doc Rivers to use up some of his fouls while he's in the game.
The unfamiliarity excuse is over with. Yes, Perkins bulked up last year in muscle mass and slimmed down to a trimmer figure, and yes, he's one of the strongest players in the league. But he's used to it by now. He doesn't throw his weight around like he used to do back in November. The frustration has also come and gone and Perk has shown a new, intense focus recently that lets him make the right decision for the play rather than the emotional hard foul.
Sometimes he is poorly positioned and in recovering he can foul the offensive player. That's something that still needs to be worked on.
But a lot of it has been the explicit instructions to make himself felt out there. If he is a starter, those instructions must change. He must be told to foul when necessary but to learn to keep himself in the game if he can. Perkins has reached a point where it's more important that he remain in the game than that he transform a particular certain two points into two free throws.
Another problem is the potential for a pouting Blount if he is to start coming off the bench. There are two solutions for that. One is to continue to start Blount but start lowering his minutes until it's a mere technicality that he's starting. The other solution is to trade him, difficult as it may be given the trade kicker in his contract. The trading alternative likely won't be pursued unless Perkins really blossoms in his new role.
Why Red Auerbach Would Agree
If you haven't yet read Red's latest book "Let Me Tell You a Story," you need to put down your mouse, shut down your computer, get in your car, drive to the bookstore, and buy ten copies. You'll read it too fast: I assure you you will be sad when the book is over, not because the ending is sad, but because you want to spend more time in Red's world. You will then find yourself recommending the book to everyone you meet, Celtics fans, sports fans, strangers in the subway, waiters, process servers, and presidents.
One of the many interesting tidbits from the book is learning about what the Celtics were like before they got Bill Russell. They were, prepare yourself for irony, an up-tempo, fast-breaking basketball team much like the current Celtics. They had winning records but they never got far in the playoffs. Why? Because they never got the ball in their hands enough.
What did Red do? He found himself a center to get him the rebound, to clog up the interior, to trigger the outlets, and to pass out of the post on offense. He happened to land himself probably the greatest basketball player you could ever hope to build a team around, but his goal was the same as the Celtics' is now.
One difference between the game today and the game back then is the age of the players. Russell came out of college. Perkins came out of high school.
It takes a special coach to realize that people can change, especially those coming out of high school. A coach can often pigeonhole a player based on how he played last year or last month or last week. For young guys, that can be old and outdated data.
Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant were all traded. It is up to Doc to look at Perk and see that he has a real gem here, a player who if he were coming out of college after his sophomore year this season, would probably be the top pick in the draft.
He's not the next Bill Russell.
He's the first Kendrick Perkins.