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Saturday, April 30, 2011
How the Celtics make lemonade

By Kevin Arnovitz

Triggers and options.

Those words are thrown around a lot when we're trying to make sense of what did or didn't happen on a possession. We've heard Erik Spoesltra say, for instance, that LeBron James was "the first trigger" on a play. Most basketball sets have a primary objective (i.e., LeBron catching the ball in motion off a curl, then driving to the hole) but also have a backup plan just in case the opponent defends that first goal well. If James is covered turning the corner, that might trigger the passer to swing the ball to the weak side, where a pick-and-roll ensues (option No. 2). If the defense snuffs out that action, there might be one final out -- maybe a shooter fading to the corner, or a cutter.

We can learn a lot about a team by its ability to convert on its second, third and fourth options -- in some sense, maybe even more so than just watching option No. 1. Exercising the patience and resourcefulness to pass up a contested first look in search for something better can be difficult, but it's something the Boston Celtics do routinely, and it is one reason why we hear them characterized so often as "unselfish." The Celtics make more liters of lemonade from lemons on seemingly lousy possessions than just about any team in the NBA.

The Celtics didn't have their best season with the ball, finishing the regular season ranked 17th in offensive efficiency. But when the Celtics' offense is operating smoothly, it's remarkably effective and a whole lot of fun to watch. During the 82-game regular season, the Heat's least efficient defensive game came in the blowout loss at Denver. No. 2 of 82? The 112-107 loss at home to Boston during November.

Boston has a knack for creating and capitalizing on multiple options and triggers, and it accomplishes this by running stuff on both sides of the floor. If you see a pick-and-roll on the far side, chances are there's something going down on the near side, too. In the process, the C's give themselves a series of choices. Don't like what the pick-and-roll yielded on the right side between Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett? Go ahead and reverse the ball, because Ray Allen will get himself open on the weak-side perimeter.

That kind of floor balance went missing for a little while during the closing weeks of the regular season, but the old offensive flow was back in the Celtics' sweep of the New York Knicks. In that series, Boston always seemed to have a bunch of options available to it. If the Knicks held their ground in the post, the Celtics would kick the ball out to the perimeter, where they would quickly initiate a pick-and-roll. For the first time in a long while, the Celtics looked like the Celtics -- meticulous in the half court with plenty of choices.

One possession that caught my eye came at the start of the second half of Game 3 of the series. Like "ATOs," opening possessions can tell us a lot about the composure of an offense, as a team comes out of the locker room refocused. Here's what we saw as the third quarter got underway at Madison Square Garden:

Celtics
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We can clearly see option No. 1 here, and that's a post-up for Paul Pierce on the left block. Pierce is able to draw a slight mismatch (Landry Fields, x2) with the help of a back screen from Allen on the right side, as Pierce rubs his primary defender (Carmelo Anthony, x3) off Allen then cuts along the baseline from right to left.

Rondo gets a high screen from Garnett, which, to nobody's surprise, his defender runs under. This is the M.O. of virtually every NBA defense -- give Rondo as much space as he wants along the perimeter.

Rondo dribbles to the left of the screen to put himself in position to make the entry pass to Pierce in the low post. Only problem? The Knicks defend it well. Toney Douglas guards the passing lane, while Fields fronts Pierce.

The Knicks have successfully taken away Option No. 1, so that triggers a counter-action from Boston:

Celtics
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There's a lot going on here -- a testimony to Boston's choreographic skill -- and it's all done with meticulous precision.

Rondo moves the other way, again with the aid of a screen from Garnett and -- again -- Douglas runs under that screen. Rondo has all kinds of space from 18 feet and there are plenty of point guards in the league who would (and should) launch that jump shot, but Rondo doesn't (and shouldn't).

We see Allen come off a pin-down, courtesy of Jermaine O'Neal, then zip to a spot behind the arc where he catches the pass from Rondo. This simple action has produced who knows how many thousands of points over the past dozen seasons or so, and as second options go, it's a pretty good one.

But Anthony fights through the pin-down and quickly closes out on Allen before he can rotate clockwise and square up for that lethal shot.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the floor, Pierce gets a down screen from Garnett (his third screen in about five seconds or so) to pop out to the perimeter with Fields trailing.

With no clean shot, Allen initiates Option No. 3:

Celtics
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Allen and O'Neal run an angle pick-and-roll, but the Knicks effectively trap Allen along the right sideline, and he has nowhere to go.

At this point, many NBA offenses would unravel. We see it every night. But the Celtics have a couple of things working for them. First, there are 11 seconds left on the shot clock -- plenty of time. The Celtics rarely futz around getting into their offense, as so many teams do, which gives them time to run through their full list of triggers.

Second, there's Garnett, who darts out to the perimeter a few feet from Allen to act as a pressure release.

It looks like such a basic movement, but it's the sort of detail that illustrates why Garnett is so good and, despite years of antisocial behavior bordering on pathological, why he's difficult to dislike as a basketball player. At every moment in every possession, Garnett intuitively knows where he's most useful on the floor. Again, that doesn't seem like much (big deal, a big man cuts to the strong side to bail out a trapped teammate), but that choice would be lost on many of the league's big men. You think Andray Blatche knows to make that cut to bail out Nick Young?

A face-up 19-footer from Garnett is likely Option No. 4, but credit the Knicks again, because Ronny Turiaf finds Garnett, taking away that space for an open jumper.

So we witness yet another trigger from Boston's offense:

Celtics
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Garnett has the ball just above the top of the key, when Rondo cuts from the perimeter (and, naturally, has no one in front of him as he revs up his engine).

Rondo catches the pass on the move (left-hand frame) and zips into the paint, where suddenly he becomes very, very dangerous. How dangerous? Virtually the entire Knicks defense collapses on Rondo as he reaches the foul line -- even Anthony, who is responsible for Allen.

Rondo might have the best court vision in the league, and he's watching Allen the whole way out beyond the arc, even as he drives into the lane. When Rondo sees Allen has the space he needs to launch a shot, he slings a side-arm pass to Allen, who catches and shoots before Anthony has time to recover (right-hand frame).

The result? Three points for the Celtics on a possession that was well-defended almost every step of the way.

It's vintage Celtics basketball -- patience, teamwork and synchronicity -- and the opportunism to exploit the slightest mistake by the defense.

Thanks to FastModel Sports Technology