One of the first things that comes to mind when I think of this solid, stylistically intriguing endgame is the coaches. More specifically, first-year coach Ime Udoka and the Celtics appear to be largely following in the footsteps of Steve Kerr and the 2014-15 Warriors, who won the NBA title in Kerr’s first season at the helm.
Like most coaches who made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs, Kerr and Udoka played for Gregg Popovich, now considered the most successful coach in league history, and coached under Gregg Popovich at one point or another . Her time with Popovich probably instilled the paramount importance of good, selfless ball movement on a team’s offense.
For Kerr, that meant preaching the importance of more passing and constant movement — even if it wasn’t down to the basic pick-and-roll that so many teams use from one play to the next. The Klay post-ups that had been such a staple under Mark Jackson quickly faded on Kerr’s offense, taking the Dubs from last at 243.8 passes per game in 2013-14 to ninth in the association at 306, 6 passes per night upgraded next year.
The concept that started with a charcuterie board at Oakland International Airport was, believe it or not, the start of building something beautiful. It gave the Warriors’ storybook-level shooters a sort of backyard basketball mentality to tap into. It’s a style so arbitrary that, more often than not, opposing defenses don’t know what to do: jump to the periphery and stick with Stephen Curry at all costs, or stick with a roleplayer like Kevon Looney, who’s on end poses just as much of a threat as the star if left wide open in the alley. The presence of Jordan Poole certainly makes the scenario defensively no longer child’s play.
Just as the Warriors experienced a boost in ball movement with Kerr (they led the NBA in assist percentage that year), the Celtics also experienced a sizeable leap in their offense after Udoka begged them to throw the rock about better to share the season in the middle. He didn’t necessarily get the message across in the gentlest of ways, either. Udoka was often public with his criticisms — especially after Boston gambled away big leads and then lost the contests — sparking minor media firestorms. The team wasn’t used to this kind of blunt honesty. However, Udoka believes the direct conversation, coupled with hours of one-on-one film work, created a new level of accountability among his players, particularly Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who moved the ball with urgency rather than constantly trying to score it themselves.
The result: Brown and Tatum increased their assist percentages from 14.4% and 18.3%, respectively, before the All-Star break to 20.2% and 23.8%, respectively, after the show. (Tatum now throws a couple of passes in every game that will leave you in awe.) Similarly, the club’s support rate before the New Year was 57.9% (20th in the NBA) and rose to 63.1% after that (8th in the league). All Star Break. The Celtics’ offensive rating prior to the All-Star contest was a meager 110.3 points per 100 possessions — 18th best in the league — but has progressed to a whopping 122.6 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break .
Of course, there are a handful of places to poke holes in the Kerr-Udoka comparison if you like.
- Golden State won 67 games and was elite throughout the 2014-15 season, while Boston heated up most of the season after the All-Star break, demonstrating a Dubs-style dominance from 2015 by beating opponents by a 12.7 points per 100 possessions – more than five points better than the next best club.
- By the start of Kerr’s first year as coach, the Warriors were already coming off a season in which defense had proven top-notch, while those Celtics finished 13th, just league average or so, before offloading Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and brought back Al Horford and consistently pumped Robert Williams’ minutes.
- As incredible as someone like Derrick White has been for Boston this year, there has certainly not been a revelation in the team’s rotation that even comes close to Kerr and the Warriors that exposed Draymond Green’s perfect fit on the starting lineup following the injury that forced David Lee to miss the first few months of this season.
And, of course, Kerr now has his team in the title round for the sixth time in eight years — a fact some will likely base themselves on when choosing Golden State, which has an undeniable advantage in experience. But make no mistake: Kerr and Udoka’s decisions to tweak, call out and change plans for young, up-and-coming teams says a lot about the men and the fact that they’re not afraid to mix things up If this is the case means winning big. (Kerr, you may recall, also challenged Curry to become more defensively involved in his first year as Golden State coach.)
“Where I’m from and who I was as a player — team basketball and San Antonio — is something of an epitome of selflessness,” Udoka said the athlete‘s Sam Amick earlier this year. “So that part of me is a no-brainer, and I think that’s one of the reasons why Brad [Stevens] hired me: because I thought so. We thought the same. But I could actually do it and hold people accountable, and it’s natural for me where it’s uncomfortable for others – even if it seems harsh at times.”
Meat and Potatoes: Good readings from SI this past week
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- I wrote a short article on what’s next for the recently defeated Mavericks, who have plenty to be optimistic about. But they also have a test of finding ways to improve a roster that appears to be in dire need of locking their second-best player (who’s set to get a lot more expensive), while bolstering the team’s central position without too much cap space available so have at the moment.
When does Butler get his moment in the sun?
Piggybacking Rohan’s play, the focus on Butler, and that final game made me wonder, will we ever get a chance to call him an NBA champion? And is he even generally considered the kind of player – that kind of megastar – whose career will be measured in part by that result?
If he isn’t, he probably should be.
He narrowly managed to lead a second team to the NBA Finals in three seasons. And before his time at Miami, he dragged a young, failing Timberwolves club across the finish line to reach the postseason after a 14-year drought. (Just in case you’ve forgotten, Butler had Wolves in fourth place in the West when he left the lineup with a torn meniscus. When he returned six weeks later, the team was nearly out of contention. With him in the line-up, they won the final three games of the campaign to secure final playoff spot in the final game of the year – one Butler was as good at as future MVP Nikola Jokić.)
And none of that touches on the fact that he may have been the best running mate Joel Embiid ever had in Philadelphia. He’s someone who can go out and get you. 35. Someone who will be fearless and refuses to shy away from contact. Someone who screws things up on the other side of the ball, who seems to be enjoying the big games rather than camouflaging into the background.
That’s not to say Butler never shuts up. Heck, in that Boston series alone he’s had back-to-back 3-on-8, 3-on-14, and 4-on-18 contests. His long-range shooting had come back down to earth by the end of the series, which illustrates part of why the late shot in Game 7 was scrutinized so closely. (Look no further than his three-point under-30 percentages over the past three seasons.) But if you look at the circumstances — Tyler Herro is injured, Bam Adebayo’s aggressiveness spikes, Kyle Lowry doesn’t look like himself and Duncan Robinson’s Useless Times – meant the workload for Butler was immense. In the other four games of the matchup with the Celtics, he had 41 points, 29 points, 47 points, and 35 points.
That sort of performance, combined with his passing skills combined with his robust but foul-averse defense — he’s one of the few forwards in the game to have more steals than personal fouls in his career — puts him squarely in the top 10, or 15 most influential players every year. Rarely is he at the top when everyone is healthy. But there seem to be few guys you’d want in a gotta have it game other than a butler who digs deeper than everyone else to find what else he’s got. It’s strange to watch him do it sometimes because he often waits to put his foot down until his team has shown they have no choice. That was the reality in Philly and Minnesota at times, and his ability to turn on his gates almost felt like a machine as he could easily find that zone. He’s a magnet for free throws.
You never hear anyone say, “When will Butler win the big one?” He’s not LeBron. He’s not Harden. He’s not Chris Paul. In a way far from it. Butler was the last pick of the first round of 2011, not the first pick. No expectations are attached to a selection so far below. But similar to that Celtics series, Butler carried his undermanned team against LeBron and the Lakers in 2020, dominating statistically — 26.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 55% shooting – until Los Angeles finally took the heat six tough games.
It doesn’t make sense that the skills of Butler, who will turn 33 before the start of next season, would be forgotten any time soon. Basketball Reference, which lists Butler’s closest statistical match as future Hall of Famer Kawhi Leonard, has put Butler at a 71.1% probability of making the Hall based on his statistical career profile. Miami has endured a season in which it finished as the East’s No.
Butler will hopefully remain elite for at least a few more years. Even if he declines, he’s the kind of player you’d love to see win one day – not only because it would validate him even more, but also because we’d know he left practically everything he had on the court, as he did when he played every 48 minutes in Game 7 and every 46 minutes in Game 6.
When we talk about players as experienced and talented as Butler, that effort speaks volumes.
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