Against one of the best teams in the NBA, the Boston Celtics offense has come to life. Movement, projection actions, intelligent selection of shots; it’s like all the pieces of their offensive puzzle have come together, and sometimes that is beautiful. But, before we see how the Celtics initiated their offense to limit the Utah Jazz’s defensive game plan, we owe Ime Udoka a thumbs up as his in-game adjustments were superb for the most part.
The Jazz are one of the funniest teams to watch in the league right now, formidable defense mixed with a high octane offense that gets the pulse pounding. However, their defensive approach is the thing that sparks the most intrigue. Ranked 10th in the defensive standings, the Jazz use what I’ve called the ‘Venus flytrap’ defense, where the offensive ball handler is the fly, and Rudy Gobert is the pincer waiting to reign in the blink of an eye.
Utah succeeds with the flytrap by tricking players on the perimeter, channeling them towards their towering cross, before the shots are returned as table service at a substandard restaurant. The key to this defensive system is to force players down the middle, where Gobert can operate in the drop, and use his wingspan to easily change mid-range jumpers. At the same time, wing defenders put pressure on the ball carriers as often as possible towards the break.
Against the Celtics, the defensive game plan worked from the start, allowing the Jazz to take an early 4-15 lead, as Boston’s offensive possessions were littered with hesitation and lack of self-confidence. But then the adjustment came, and Boston’s offense never looked back.
Instead of playing over the break, the Celtics started initiating actions on the wing, only venturing into fly trap territory to initiate second or third side actions. The cutters moved smoothly to make sure the pressure from the defensive wing remained minimal, and with that, Gobert’s impact began to diminish. Granted, Boston was still attacking rolling in the middle, but it was often to engage the big defenders before redirecting the rock towards the wings or the turns.
This possession is a prime example of how the Celtics sought to undo the smothering tower and open that fly trap. Dennis Schroder engages Gobert on the drive before returning the ball to the perimeter, which tests the ability of the Jazz’s center to change direction at high speed. Jayson Tatum immediately cuts towards the paint to engage the strong winged defenders, and Horford leads down the middle, testing Goberts’ balance before sending him back to Marcus Smart. The latter rose from corner to wing for an easy three to catch and shoot.
A simple game, right? But that’s how the Celtics got most of their offensive traction in half-court situations. Engaging the big man early and often kept him out of the scoring action and allowed the cutters to occupy the minds of defenders as the scoring actions unfolded around them.
Here’s another example of an attack that catches the defense’s attention before swinging the boulder to the weak side. This time the game is played due to an inverted screen (smaller player screen for a taller player) which forces a lag. Which, in this case, leaves Mike Conley guarding Grant Williams, who intimidates his way into the paint, enters his draping motion, then redirects the ball to Horford in the corner.
Once again, the Celtics were testing Gobert’s mobility, making him work on every shooting competition and, more importantly, finding ways to attack the paint without risking a giant hand squeezing them.
Above we have yet another example of how the Celtics dragged Gobert around the perimeter, chased the offset, then took an easy peek around the rim. Of course, this type of attack isn’t rocket science, but it does require the full buy-in of players 1 to 15, because without the filtering and cutting you end up with some basic sideways pick-and-roll actions. that are just too easy to plot against.
Over the season, Gobert limited his opponents to 38.7% shots, but against the Celtics that number jumped to 62.5%. Of course, there were some shining moments that led to both scoring opportunities and three shots, with Tatum’s head-to-head game below being one. But handling a defenseman of Gobert’s caliber is an encouraging sign for a Celtics side that have found themselves at the bottom of the league on offense in recent months.
How is the above game different? No Gobert! But the game plan remains the same. Sure, Gobert might have been the catalyst the Celtics needed to finally work in Udoka’s system, but when you spawn easy buckets and everyone’s eating, why go back to the old one?
It’s no secret that by playing against Jazz, you’re going to have plenty of mid-range sweaters available to you. Quin Snyder is smart enough to know that you won’t lose too many games if mid-range jumpers are the only easy bucket on the menu.
The Jazz have only lost 7 games all season, but it’s interesting that 5 of those losses came against teams that had more than 25% of their offense on the edge. The Celtics fall into that category, with 28.7% of their looks within 4 feet of the basket by Cleaning The Glass. Boston may not have come away with a win over their Western Conference opponents, but they understood the required game plan and executed it to perfection once their adjustments were made.
So as losing to Jazz adds another “L” to the season record, it looks like the Celtics are finally starting to play the “Udoka” way. Of course, a good attacking game doesn’t dictate a new direction for the team, but it does give us a silver lining for what’s to come, and if they can repeat their performance against a Portland Trail Blazers team without Damian. Lillard, then that hope will only grow stronger.