How the Celtics’ role players can bolster Joe Mazura’s spacing system

Joe Mazzulla’s core values ​​have taken shape over the first month or so of the season, and the topic of spacing comes up every night.

But he doesn’t talk about common terms in the traditional sense. Spacing was a concept that became at the forefront of the public lexicon during the five-a-side revolution of the early 2010s, as big men started becoming three-point shooters and teams looked to open up as many lanes as possible.

Then fours and ones came into fashion again, as bigs started rolling more or lurking behind the rim for the dunk position. Boston has embraced that since Al Horford — a pick-and-roll specialist — initially left and Rob Williams took the top spot. Daniel Theis mastered Gortat, rolling through the paint and blocking defenders so his pick-and-roll partner could waltz all the way to the rim. The Celtics break that pattern every once in a while, but they’re using their big men to disrupt the paint differently now.

When the Celtics hit the ball in the corner, the center was in the way on purpose. It’s a nod to the growth of a player like Grant Williams, who has gone from just being able to attack a finisher this year to being great against them this year.

Last season, Grant Williams would feint, dribble toward the midrange, and pass the ball to a shooter at the elbow. From there, he’ll fill a spot on the perimeter and get ready to launch. But even as he improves his ballhandling and can legitimately drive to the rim, players like Luke Kornet and Blake Griffin still stand at the rim.

It’s a sign that Williams is turning into a true wing, as the scheme is betting on him being able to go deep and still read the rim.

How the gamble worked was that when Williams started to drive, the big man stood under the net, keeping his players in position to protect the rim. That means he’ll be open around the rim, so another defender has to help a shooter to cover the big. Because the guys blocking Williams will either tail him or just run to the corner, Williams has three defenders near the rim and an open teammate somewhere on the perimeter. That can leave a lot of room for a tough defense like Toronto.

In the first clip, Williams loses Fred VanVleet and draws Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam at the rim for Marcus Smart at Scotiabank Arena. Special left a huge space. He pulls hard at the rim, even as he’s moving toward Griffin, just to sell off rotation Siakam on a shot.

Then he turned right on the catch, easily over the help and passed the ball to Smart. Notice how Jayson Tatum points at Smart after Williams makes a move, then immediately throws his hands up and starts stepping back. He knew Smart knew.

That’s why this offense can work so seamlessly without a game call. Their continuity is generating a form of on-court telepathy.

So when Mazzulla talks about pitch, he doesn’t mean large expanses of hardwood to roam. And what he means is precise alignment, even in tight areas of the floor, to open up all these reads that are built into the system. Now his rotation is almost full of guys who can put the ball on the floor and see all those reads more effectively than anyone else in the league.

Hauser persevered alone

Early in the season, there was a sense that Boston’s defense took a step back, behind the offensive revolution taking place on the court. That’s partly because the Celtics’ big men used deep shots to invite drivers into the paint and keep defenders out of the way. The big man rotation is a work in progress.

But since losses to the Bulls and Cavaliers, respectively, in Week 2 of the season, the defense has been as good as it could have hoped without Rob Williams. They are 14-2 in their last 16 games and have a defensive rating of 110.6, seventh in the league during that stretch.

As the Celtics defense strengthened, the team increasingly resorted to mismatch targeting, and Samhauser was often identified as a weak point. While Boston ranks last in the league in points per possession (ppp) when defending isolations, Hauser has been one of the few bright spots. According to Synergy, he has been sent to the island 37 times, but only scored 34 points.

What makes him effective? Circumstances exaggerate his ability a bit, as a lot of isolations come from players who wouldn’t normally attempt to go up against more prestigious defenders. But even against star players, he doesn’t look out of place. So while his shooting and movement has been his calling card, his defense has kept him in the rotation.

Against De’Aaron Fox, he could flip his hips fluidly without biting his cross, and then hold tight against step-back 3s without fouling. When Brandon Ingram tried to drive past him, Hauser swung the ball wide to force Ingram to pick it up without a foul, then expected the ball to spin back to catch Ingram’s face . They’re all shots these stars take a lot under duress, but he knows the personnel scouting reports well enough to make them feel as uncomfortable as possible in those situations.

Even if Dejounte Murray scored on the final ball, Hauser got his hands behind the video above, but seemed to distance himself while Luke Kornet rotated into the perfect position so that fouls were impossible for him. Hauser rarely stopped. He went to miss. He gets it.

Aside from one turnover by Kevin Durant — which happens to everyone in the league — he’s been a stonewall when defending in space. His iso defense is a good litmus test of what makes a great scorer, since usually only top players who can combine speed and guile get to a position where they can score barely on him.

When Siakam cleared him, the Raptors star rammed Hauser hard, sending him deep into the lane and allowing Siakam to enter the lane for a turnaround jumper. When Bradley Beal takes him to the corner in the clip below, he pushes too hard on Bill’s baseline, giving Bill enough room to bump him and sneak a finger roll.

It’s the difference between a good defender like Houser and a true wing defender like Jaylen Brown or Tatum. It’s a big step forward for a second-year player who signed a two-way contract last season. If he can keep that up when the Celtics get back healthy, his job will be a whole lot easier.

But with solid skills, good balance and enough strength to handle most players, Hauser looks like he’s transitioning from a two-way player on the payroll to a two-way athlete on the field.

(Photo: Nick Grace/Getty Images)


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