The Bra(n)d new Celtics proves that small is the new big

Team-to-watch ALERT! Everybody, these are the Bra(n)d new Boston Celtics Are they are good? They are too good. A college team gone pro: Tons of passing, bigs playing small and vice versa. Οne of the league’s top-notch offenses and the pride of having the best closer in the game.

Wake-up call: They rank 2nd in the East with a 37–19 record and getting better and better. I can hear those lips mumbling “but how”. They did it by proper recruiting and picking the next-best coach. Brad Stevens is the man, but you have to give credit to Danny Ainge, the guy who has brought the “Big 3” concept in fashion in the mid-00's. He is the one to combine the Spurs-manual and the way of the Warriors, building a solid roster, following all three ways: trades, draft picks and the free-agency.

Since the summer of 2013, when Stevens left Butler to coach his first professional team at the tender age of 34, he stuck with Avary Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and James Young. All of them were brought on board through the Draft process. (Bradley in 2010, Olynyk in 2013, Young in 2013).

From that season and on the Celtics traded or just let go all their assets, in order to create cap space and lure their goals, as they the past summer by landing Al Horford. They made “Big-Al” an offer he could not refuse and Hawks could not.

So, Boston shipped Rondo, Prince, Sullinger, Turner, Lee, Green, Bass, Bayless and Crawford and managed through the years to add the pieces suited for their puzzle. They drafted Marcus Smart (2014), Terry Rozier, Jordan Mickey (2015), Demetrius Jackson and Jaylen Brown (2016). They acquired through trading Zeller and Crowder (for Rondo), Jerebko (for Prince) and Thomas for Marcus Thorton and a 2016 first-round pick. They also signed, as free-agents, Amir Johnson (in 2015) and Al Horford, offering him a 113 million dollars contract.

These season only two teams count more own draft picks than the Celtics. That’s Thunder and Raptors. They have 9. Celtics have 8. But, they can also show-off by telling they have the 4th youngest team in the league, averaging 25,6 years. Only Sixers (24,5), Blazers (24,7) and Raptors (25,0) are younger.

Hats-off, Mr Ainge.

College-ball in the NBA: pass-pass, shoot-shoot

Brad Stevens proves his college-basketball roots. He has created a squad that loves to pass the ball and shoots tons of threes. As a result Boston has the 3rd best offense in the East (108.3 points) and the 7th in total, with an OffRtg of 109.5 points. They also have the 3rd best half-court offense (0.987) via Synergy (behind the high-octane offenses of Warriors and Rockets).

They rank 4th in three-pointers made (12,1), getting the 33.5% of their total points behind the arc. Only, two teams are more depended in 3s than the Celtics. They also come 3rd in “catch-n-shoot” points (31.0 per game) and “spot-up” points (25.5 points per game).

Remember the long college-ball plays? Offenses that kept on passing for 35'’? OK, now fast-forward the pace, cut down the shot-clock and you will have the “new Celtics”. That is because they pass the ball 329 times per game (2nd best in the NBA), they hand out 25.1 assists (3rd best), 7.2 secondary assists (2nd best), with 64.4% assisted field goals (2nd best) and a great assist/turnover ratio (1.98–2nd best).

Celtics pride: the fourth-quarter

These Celtics have shown great character and are led by the No1 closer in business right now: he scores 10.5 points in the last quarter these season. No other player the past 20 years was averaging double digits.

Until the all-star break they have played the most closed games in the league (36). They have won 69.4% of them, enjoying the 2nd best percentage among the 30 teams, slipping behind the raining Champions, LeBron James’ team. OK, a) they are the confidence and the winning mentality of a champ and b) have the best player in the world.

Thomas late-heroics work for the Celtics. They have a clutch point guard to make the right choice at the right time. Also, they have a coach that has everything under control. Celtics have scored the most points after time-outs and have the 2nd best PPP (1.002 — next to Rockets), metrics that prove the significant role of Brad Stevens on the team.

The Celtics Play-Book

Brad Stevens’ philosophy is built on solid foundation. Two prolific on-ball players (one guard and one big man), a small-ball concept, the canonisation of spacing and tons of passing.

A) Get Shorty

Isaiah Thomas is the motor of the Celtic’s engine. The entire team rides on his scoring ability. He has been putting up 29.8 points per game (ranks 2nd in the league), shooting with 47% from the floor and 38% behind the arc, making 3.2 three-pointers per game (5th best) and sharing 6.4 dimes per game.

A break-out season without any doubt.

His Points Per Possession (via Synergy) metrics are off the chart: 1.135. He ranks first among guard in the league and comes second -only after Kevin Durant- among players that number over 1.000 possessions.

Although he is measure 1,75, he carries a tremendous scoring arsenal. He is deadly when relying to a left hand penetration and can also make it rain if he choose to shoot off the right dribble.

He is quick. Speedy Gonzales quick. In terms of dribbling, passing, thinking even shooting. What he lacks because of his small frame, he gains through his quick release and high-arc shots. Either it is a pull-up, or a floater over the big man hands.

The most impressive aspect of his game is the notorious “stop and go”. He changes his pace and shakes his opponent off balance, because the poor soul that goes head-to-head against him has to choose either to leave no distance to put a hand over his shot, or to protect the lane. Nobody can stop both.

So, he can shoot for three, take the mid-range shot and finish in the paint, after drawing contact with taller and bigger opponents.

B) The second on-ball option called Al

Al Horford is the second go-to-guy for the Celtics. He is a post-up threat with a sweet shooting touch around the basket, especially when he takes out his opponent with his right shoulder. But, he is also a three point threat. A big problem especially because he plays at center.

He can shoot, he can pop-out and he can pass. Plenty of reasons for Brad Stevens to let him strolling on the perimeter. He scores 14.8 points, leads the team in rebounds (6.9) and gives out 5.0 assist, second next to Thomas.

C) A solid supporting cast

Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk play a significant role. Crowder (13.9 points and 5.3 rebounds) is an oversized perimeter player, with great athletic abilities, who is considered a movin’ n breathin’ mismatch.

Olynyk (9.2 points, 4.7 rebounds) on the other hand is a big man with guard skills. He can shoot, he can dribble, he can read the floor and above all he can serve the “small-ball” concept. In offense he often dresses up as “Draymond Green”. Hand-offs, pop-outs, bounce passes, facing-up bigger opponents. You name it.

And then there is Marcus Smart. A high-motor guard who does it all. He scores 103. points and gives out 4.6 assists, replacing the injured sniper Avery Bradley.

D) Big is the new small

For some teams going “small-ball” is like a Plan-B. Like the refuge in the coach’s game-plan. For the Celtics it is the rule, not the exception. They are not “small” as the Rockets, who thrive in a pick-n-roll oriented offense. They are small because of they have big men that play face to the basket, like Olynyk and Horford, leaving only Amir Johnson as an old-fashion big man, with limited skill-set.

In Brad Stevens’ mind the bigs have to play away from the basket, creating space in the paint for the guards. Olynyk, Horford and Jerebko tend to spread the floor, providing scoring opportunities for Isaiah Thomas. They don’t fill the lanes with bodies and prefer to have four, even five players at the perimeter.

Their entire offense is built on this particular concept. Stevens is considered a tactical pioneer (a master of special situations), but has decided to use one of the oldest tricks in the book for his team, a “flex option”, in which the 1–2–2 formation keeps the big men away from the rim.

Not only that. He prefers the pick-n-pop than the pick-n-roll. The flares of Horford and Olynyk seems like copyright moves for the Celtics.

They can shoot, they can play 1on1, they can pass, or continue the flow of the play with a hand-off, which is always a safe choice when the front-line players can read the floor and exploit all the passing options.

Synergy proves that. They rank 3rd in points after a hand-off, right behind the Lakers and the Blazers.

E) The guards doing the dirty work

So, we have the big men strolling around the three-point line. We have a pocket-size on-ball wizard such as Isaiah Thomas. Who will do the dirty work, like screening? In the Celtics playbook the guards set the most screens.

A great idea if you look at the big pictures. NBA is not a switching league, as much as Euroleague for example. And on the other hand the Celtics have the ingredients to hit those mismatches, if the defense chooses to switch. You simply cannot switch on Isaiah Thomas, because he will beat his opponent in a 1on1 situation easily. You cannot switch on Crowder, because he turns even greener than his Celtic jersey when he gets the ball near the basket. He is like Hulk.

So, Boston is using a lot of:

Guard to guard on-ball screens. The high-flying Gerald Green is the key here. He goes for a 3-on-1 pick-n-roll and he can either pop-out (slipping the screen is always a great idea for creating isolation opportunities), or roll-in.

Guard to guard off-ball screens. Remember the flex offense. Many teams do that, getting “shadow points”, by making their star player setting the screen. Like the Warriors do in a textbook execution.

Guard to big screens for a quick-hitting shot.

F) Different screening angles

Again that is something the Celtics are doing frequently. Both in transition and set plays. It is an option that suits Isiah Thomas, because he can either get the separation he need to take a right pull-up three-pointers, or rip the defense apart by penetrating left.

Boston uses this concept as an early pick, or as a set play and not only for Isaiah Thomas, but for Marcus Smart, also.

A common practice among teams with scoring point guards, like Warriors, Thunder and Wizards.

Ok, you have been alerted about the next best thing in the NBA. A young team that is now getting started. If you hit the snooze button, remember to wake up before the Playoffs, because Celtics will have already be heading to work.