Boston Celtics’ Offensive Breakdown: Kyrie Irving vs. Isaiah Thomas— November 6th 2017
By Danny Emerman
With the roster turnover led by the blockbuster Kyrie Irving-Isaiah Thomas trade, the Boston Celtics are running the same offense with different runners. Kyrie Irving, the new offensive engineer, is still acclimating to dribble hand-offs, early back screens, and drive-and-kick basketball. Those are the principles which made Isaiah Thomas an MVP candidate.
Now, by inserting Irving into the equation, the Celtics haven’t missed a beat.
Irving is improving every game as he continues to feel out Brad Stevens’ half-court offense. His scoring totals so far? 22, 17, 21, 20, 24, 24, 24, 22, 25. And he’s letting things come to him. By playing within the offense, he is getting his without gunning.
But Brad Stevens still hasn’t tweaked the offense for Irving. They’re still running most of the same actions from last year. While Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas are similar—they’re both great finishers, can pull-up from anywhere, have tight handles—they are not the same player. Most notably, they play at completely different paces. Thomas is a Porsche, he goes from 0-to-60 in the blink of an eye, whereas Irving is like a Tesla, a smooth operator who turns into gear when he needs to.
One staple of the Celtics half-court offense is the dribble handoff sprint from the corner. Last year, Thomas would use his blazing speed to shred his defender early and leave them in the dust. He often did not require a screen to create separation for the handoff.
Now, with Irving, the Celtics like to overload one side and have him run off a couple screens before taking the handoff and attacking the middle of the floor. Here, Irving runs off two rub screens before taking the handoff from Horford and finding him rolling to the hoop for the easy bucket. Same result, but look how much slower Irving does it. He’s three gears below Isaiah was!
The main objective of Brad Stevens’ offense is to get skilled players the ball in opportunistic scoring situations. That’s why it works. When a guy like Isaiah Thomas or Kyrie Irving catches the ball on the move with his man on his hip, or he has a mismatch, or he has 10 feet of space in front of him, he’s going to make a play.
Here, watch as Kyrie Irving curls off Horford at the elbow and finds him rolling to the rim. Since Irving’s man, Dejounte Murray, is trailing him, Horford’s man (LaMarcus Aldridge) is forced to jump out at Irving to prevent an open lane to the rim. That leaves Horford wide open for a lob at the rim as the Spurs weak side defense can’t rotate in time.
Boston ran this action with Thomas last year, too. They have success with it because they have so many other capable secondary ball-handlers to trigger the action. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and now even Jayson Tatum can initiate this play from the top.
Another way Stevens likes to create looks for his point guards is in semi-transition. With an angled screen in semi-transition, the Celtics sprung open Isaiah Thomas for easy looks all the time last year. After a rebound and even after a made basket occasionally, Thomas would push the ball and use a flat screen from either Horford or Olynyk to get downhill and attack the rim.
Thomas gets multiple screens in a playoff game against the Chicago Bulls. His lightning speed allows him to get all the way to the cup and finish. And-1.
Irving does not really have that in his repertoire. Instead of getting all the way to the basket, he often settles for midrange jumpers and floaters. In this clip, he takes a flat screen from Aron Baynes and pulls up for a decent look. Although this was after a made basket and the defense is set, he is in attack mode less than Isaiah, who was relentless.
Thomas’s relentlessness earned him almost 9 free throw attempts per game. So far, Irving is shooting just 3.3 free throws per game. That’s basically the difference between averaging 22 points per game (2017 Irving) and 28.9 (2016 Thomas). Instead of seeking contact like Thomas, Kyrie Irving usually throws up floaters with either hand. And that’s not bad; Irving has the best floater in the NBA. But he needs to balance shooting floaters and getting to the free throw line a little better.
One of the main questions, when the Celtics made the Kyrie-Isaiah trade, was how Irving will play off the ball. Isaiah Thomas often got wide open catch-and-shoots after running around screens.
With Cleveland, Irving was either isolating with the ball or watching LeBron operate from the perimeter. Cleveland’s offense was very stationary, unlike Boston’s. Kyrie has answered that question already; he’s awesome at moving without the ball.
Kyrie has never run anything like this in his life. He comes all the way across the top of the arc before rubbing off Baynes for a fake lob. He then fake posts up and slips backdoor for an easy layup. It’s nearly impossible to stay in front of Kyrie when he’s crossing you up, now he’s a threat even when he doesn’t have the ball.
The other question with Irving was, will he be a good enough playmaker? Through the first nine games, he has impressed. While Isaiah Thomas’s drive-and-kick game was prime last year, Irving is improving. He has great vision, but sometimes he just forces tough shots in the lane instead of kicking out to open shooters. Here, he makes the right choice, avoiding the shot-blocker by finding Al Horford spotting up in the corner.
One action the Celtics might try now is using Irving as a screener. They did not do this much last year because Thomas’s size made him an ineffective screener. Since Kyrie garners so much attention, they can use his picks to spring open backdoor cuts as defenders over pursue Irving. They can also use Irving as a screener in pick and rolls to create mismatches. Cleveland did this a little with LeBron as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. Maybe if Gordon Hayward (pour one out) was still healthy, we would see that a little more, but they can still run it with Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, or even Al Horford as the ball-handler.
Another action they can use Kyrie in is the double screen. As Irving and the bigs develop more chemistry, plays like this will be more fluid.
Kelly Olynyk and Al Horford create a lane for Isaiah by walling off their defenders. Getting Kyrie Irving looks like that will be dangerous. Their offense will evolve and mold around Kyrie Irving’s play style as the season progresses.
It’s scary the Celtics are 7-2 just by running last year’s offense with completely new personnel.