The wizard of Boston

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 26: Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics and his bench watch as Cleveland Cavaliers defeats them in Game Four during the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2015 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 26: Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics and his bench watch as Cleveland Cavaliers defeats them in Game Four during the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 26, 2015 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images) /

The Boston Celtics are the most confusing team in the NBA. Their best player stands just 5-foot-9. Their head coach had no NBA experience before taking the job in 2013. They don’t have a single player who would be a top-three guy on a championship contender. Yet here they are in the middle of the Eastern Conference’s second-tier teams: fighting for the right to lose to the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals, playing well above their individual talent level, and creating massive headaches for opponents in every game.

Brad Stevens has been on the job for two-and-a-half years and is already one of the four or five best coaches in the league. Everything history has taught us points to college coaches having tempered success at the next level. For every Larry Brown there’s a Rick Pitino, John Calipari or P.J. Carlesimo. Brad Stevens appears to be one of the few exceptions to the rule, and has been so successful that teams have started going to the college well again; the Thunder and the Bulls, two teams who were successful under their former coaches, hired Billy Donovan and Fred Hoiberg, respectively, this past offseason.

Stevens’ most impressive accomplishment has arguably happened away from the court. He has earned the respect of his players and others in the organization, something that doesn’t always happen at high-profile clubs like the Celtics, where pressure is intensified. Stevens draws praise from around the league as well, with gushing tributes to his acumen from the likes of LeBron James and Gregg Popovich. There are no snakes in the Boston grass, no percolating coups among his assistant coaches, no connecting-with-millennial books on his bookshelf. He commands the respect of the locker room, his players go harder in practice and in games, and as a result the team has found success. Success breeds respect; the two go hand-in-hand for a head coach (unless you’re David Blatt in Cleveland).

And boy is Stevens’ system succeeding for the Celtics. He’s got Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk looking like Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, running pick-and-pops and finding open shooters all over the court. Thomas is posting career highs in points, assists, and rebounds per 36 minutes while carrying the Celtics offensively through major stretches in most games. His efficiency has predictably dropped as his usage has skyrocketed, but it’s hard to deny that Thomas has had an All-Star caliber year in his first full season in a Celtics uniform. Perhaps most impressive is Thomas’ ability to finish around the basket; he’s shooting 56.3 percent in the restricted area this season, just one percentage point worse that Russell Westbrook and ahead of his former Phoenix teammate Eric Bledsoe.

The Celtics run a lot of staggered screen action for Thomas in the early part of the shot clock, looking to get him in the paint before the defense is set. Zaza Pachulia is slow to hedge on the second screen from Olynyk, and Thomas easily blows by him for the layup. When Pachulia did hedge properly earlier in that same game against the Mavericks, Thomas found the rolling Jared Sullinger for the easy basket.

Getting the ball down the court quickly and getting into this staggered screen action is crucial for Boston. The Celtics shoot just 26 percent in late-shot-clock situations, the worst mark in the league by over two percentage points, so these early scores take a lot of pressure off their offense.

The Celtics have constructed their roster in such a way that they have lots of interchangeable parts offensively and can run the same action several different directions. Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko are capable outside shooters. Olynyk, Sullinger, Amir Johnson, David Lee, and Tyler Zeller are all able to catch and finish on the roll. Thomas, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, and Jae Crowder can all effectively handle the ball in a pick-and-roll, and space the floor around a pair of teammates running the same action.

A unique set that the Celtics run looks to take advantage of their players’ multitude of skill sets and abilities. It’s one of the more interesting formations in which a team will line up with the point guard bringing the ball down the middle of the floor with two teammates right in front of him, forming a stack not unlike one you would see in an out-of-bounds play.

Turner, Smart, and Olynyk all line up in the stack right in the middle of the floor and on this variation, Olynyk pops to set a ball screen for Turner and Smart dives down the middle, sealing his man behind him for the catch and finish.

Once again, Turner, Smart, and Olynyk get into the stack, but this time Smart rubs Turner’s defender as they cross half court, giving Turner a head start and forcing one of the other Dallas defenders to step up to contain him. Olynyk steps into a ball screen on the containing defender as Smart sprints full speed from around half court to the basket, receiving the ball from Turner for the easy layup. The spacing provided by Bradley and Jerebko in the corners aids the Celtics immensely, as their defenders have to respect their shooting ability and stay home.

Smart gives the same rub above the three-point line, Olynyk sets the same ball screen for Turner, but this time, Turner drives into the hedging defender and Olynyk pops out for the three. It’s the same starting formation each time, but vastly different options depending on what the defense throws at the initial ball handler. The initial rub screen from Smart is incredibly important, as he can get a head of steam toward the rim immediately and the defense is forced to switch someone on to Turner to contain his drive. Essentially, if Smart sets a good screen at the beginning of the possession, the Celtics are playing 3-on-2 in the middle of the floor, with Turner, Smart, and Olynyk matching up against the two remaining defenders. With Turner’s ability to pull up for jumpers, Smart’s ability to finish inside, and Olynyk’s ability to hit the three from the top of the key, this stack formation opens up a lot of options for Boston offensively.

Another bread-and-butter play for Stevens and the Celtics is a set called Indy Rip, which emphasize spacing with their big men. Thomas pitches to the big man at the top of the key before initiating a wide variety of options that comes out of the back screen he receives on the other side.

The first option looks for Thomas to be open right under the basket after the simple back screen. If the big can’t get the pass to Thomas down low, then Thomas has to decide where the play goes next: he can pop out behind a pin down from the same guy who gave him the back screen, or he can set a back screen himself for his teammate in the opposite corner before getting a pin down for a three in a screen-the-screener action.

Thomas gets the initial back screen from Sullinger, but the dive to the rim isn’t going to be open. Thomas flows through to set a back screen for Bradley in the corner, and then pops out behind Johnson’s pin down for an open three. Even if this three isn’t open, Thomas and Johnson could flow into a two-man game on the wide-open right side of the court, taking advantage of the scrambling defense to get into the paint.

Stevens uses a lot of misdirection sets to get his assortment of players into positions for easy scores. Because the team doesn’t have a true superstar, he has designed a system that relies on player and ball movement to maximize the offensive talent that he does possess. The personnel on this team aren’t going to push Boston into the championship conversation this year, but the building blocks of a contender are there.

General Manager Danny Ainge has done a fantastic job filling this team with useful pieces who work cohesively in Stevens’ system, while still keeping a keen eye on the future. Boston has been in the conversation to trade many of its assets for a superstar and the club will be armed with as much as $51.7 million in cap space this summer to go after a big free agent or two. While a guy like Kevin Durant may not want to sign with the Celtics, it wouldn’t surprise many to see a player like Al Horford take a good, long look at Boston. The word is out about Stevens, and Horford would be a perfect fit in an expanded role based on what Olynyk currently does with the starting unit. Add in a playmaking wing like Nicolas Batum, also an unrestricted free agent after this season, and a top-five pick courtesy of Billy King and the Brooklyn Nets, and this Celtics team might be ready to compete with the Cavaliers at the top of the Eastern Conference as early as next season.

But no matter whether they end up with Horford, Batum, Ben Simmons or none of the above, Stevens will have his boys in green and white playing hard every night and running some of the smartest and most innovative sets in the league.