Must C’s: Celtics cut up Pacers with passes and off ball movement

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Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Boston sweeps two-game mini-series winning ugly one night, playing beautiful basketball the other.

Against the Pacers, it was third time all year that five Celtics registered three or more assists each in regulation: Al Horford (4), Jayson Tatum (4), Josh Richardson (4), Jaylen Brown (3), Dennis Schroder (3). When asked about the synergy between Brown and Tatum, head coach Ime Udoka deflected and instead, complemented the entire team, saying, “the thing I liked was the ball movement, the unselfishness.”

It was hardly Boston’s best passing performance with 23 assists. They’ve topped that number sixteen times this year. However, the eye test says that the win in Indianapolis was one of the better examples of what this team can look like when they’re all committed to sharing the ball and maybe more importantly, moving away from it.

Robert Williams chipped in with two assists and they were perfect examples of Boston’s ability, with Horford too, to run the offense through their bigs with off ball action freeing up their guards and wings.

Williams doesn’t have a post-up game or a mid-range shot yet, but he’s an astute passer from the high post and the block. Starting the offense from that angle can be tricky for the opponent. If a team is running pick-and-roll, all the action is in front of you. Oversimplified, but it’s easier to stay between your man and the ball.

If you invert the court and have the ball close to the basket, you’re constantly checking your cover and the ball. You can see how much communication it takes on the Pacers end when Schroder fakes that he’s setting a back screen for Horford. Domantas Sabonis calls out to Justin Holiday to recover on to Tatum, but it’s too late. Horford has already picked him off and Williams finds him for the open three.

Similar action here with Tatum ISO’ing on the smaller Malcolm Brogdon. All five Pacers are focused on the mismatch so Horford sets a blind screen again on Holiday and peels off Brown for an uncontested three-pointer.

All night, Indiana blitzed Brown (34 points) and Tatum (33) with double teams. They didn’t rack up a ton of dimes and instead, they made the right basketball play and “hit singles.” Brown won’t get credit for the assist here, but he gets the defense rotating which eventually allows Horford to drive a close out and find Grant Williams for the dunk.

Here, it’s Tatum drawing the double near half court and Horford again driving in to the paint. Robert Williams, the dunkiest of dunkers in the dunker spot, catches the lob for the alley oop.

“It was a total team effort. Everybody shared the ball. That was pretty evident from the start,” Udoka said. “I loved the ball movement. I loved the body movement. It was a mix of isolations, pick-and-roll, off-ball action — that’s where we’re going to be at our best offensively.”