Pushing the ball in transition is more efficient than a halfcourt possession, but not all halfcourt possessions are created equal. After a make or in another situation in which the defense gets bodies back before the ball crosses into the frontcourt, offenses can still push their advantage by running quick actions to exploit a defense that’s not quite set. Early offense is a key part of any successful team and the Boston Celtics are no exception.
In Game 2, Boston went to a familiar set quite a few times throughout the first three quarters, before they were trying to slow the game down and run as much clock as they could in the final period: Double Drag. Teams all over the league run a version of this; the Golden State Warriors were perhaps most famous for their double drag set that murdered the Los Angeles Clippers in a regular season game earlier this year.
Brad Stevens has the Celtics running the same double drag set the Warriors do, but the intentions are very different. With Kyrie Irving injured, they don’t have anybody with a modicum of the off-the-dribble shooting Stephen Curry possesses, but Boston is still able to make this set work by focusing on the other four players on the floor while the defense is worried about the ball.
The setup is relatively simple: the ball is brought up on one side of the floor, as close to the sideline as possible, while two players follow the ball and set staggered drag screens across the top of the key. The two players uninvolved in the main action stand on the opposite wing and corner from the ball’s original position.
As the point guard brings the ball across the two screens, one screener will pop and the other will roll, with the hopes of causing confusion in the defense and opening somebody for an easy three or layup. For the Warriors, Curry will often pull up for the three at the top of the key, especially if the defense retreats back into the paint. For Boston against Milwaukee on Tuesday night, Terry Rozier and Shane Larkin didn’t have quite the same shade of green light, but the set was still effective:
Larkin brings the ball up on the left side of the floor and dribbles over two screens from Jayson Tatum and Greg Monroe while Guerschon Yabusele and Marcus Morris space the floor on the other side. This positioning is key because once Larkin makes it over the two screens, the left side of the floor becomes the weak side; the tagger on Monroe’s roll would usually come from the left corner, since a pass to that corner is the hardest for Larkin to make. In this alignment, there is nobody in that left corner and nobody helps into the paint on the former Buck as he rumbles in for the dunk.
The next time down the floor, Boston once again takes advantage of that empty corner, but this time it’s Larkin turning down the drag screens and driving baseline to get to the basket:
Larkin comes down on the right side of the floor this time, but the rest of the setup is the same as before. Shabazz Muhammad sees what’s coming and helps way off Morris in the corner when Larkin drives, forcing the kick out to Yabusele on the left wing, but he and Morris are being defended by a single defender and Yabusele gets an open three-pointer.
After halftime, the Celtics went back to this set four more times in the third quarter, using the Bucks’ halftime adjustments against them:
Rozier gets to the middle of the floor and when Aron Baynes rolls down the lane, Khris Middleton pinches in from the left corner to prevent the easy dunk Monroe got in the first half. Rozier picks up his dribble, looks off Middleton and fakes it to Baynes in the center, then whips the ball to Jaylen Brown in the left corner for an open three.
Boston has another wrinkle out of this set that also takes advantage of the help coming from the opposite corner. If that guy helps too early, the point guard can swing the ball across the court to the weak side to run a quick two-man game with one defender way out of position:
Middleton once again pinches in from the corner and Rozier recognizes it early, swinging the ball over to Al Horford. Horford and Brown to run a DHO-and-roll on that side of the floor with Middleton woefully behind the play and Brown is able to get into the teeth of the defense and find Baynes along the baseline for a makeable jumper. When the Celtics go small with Horford at center and Morris in at the power forward position, either big will be spaced out to the corner and make it even more difficult for Milwaukee to defend all the options.
Getting into quick action in early offense is important for the Celtics, who lack for individual offensive creation with the absence of Irving and Gordon Hayward and need as much time on the shot clock as possible to get the best shot possible each possession. Rather than lazily bringing the ball up, Rozier and Larkin are sprinting into position to get the play started as early as possible, both to take advantage of an unbalanced defense and to give themselves more time to find the right shot.