Celtics Horns Pick-and-Roll Gives Rondo Options

Watch just about any five-minute span of a Boston Celtics game and you’re bound to see evidence of the incredible brilliance of Rajon Rondo as a passer in action. You’re also bound to see Rondo running plenty of pick-and-rolls and/or pick-and-pops. Last season, he used 678 pick-and-roll plays including passes, according to mySynergySports. That works out to an average of about 9.68 per game. This year that number has more than doubled, as he’s already run 194 pick-and-roll plays plus passes in Boston’s 10 games so far, for an average of 19.4 per game.

One thing you probably won’t see a lot of, however, is the Celtics operating out of a horns set (one of the most common NBA sets), even though their personnel seems well-suited for it. As Tom Westerholm from Celtics Town put it when I sought him out last night, “As I’m sure you noticed, the Celtics don’t run a ton of horns plays, which confuses me a little since they have three different bigs capable of mid-range pick and pops. Anyway.” I assume he was referring to Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger, but being that Boston likes to run a lot of the 1-3 pick-and-pop action with Rondo and Paul Pierce, we should probably up that to four players.

That’s largely why I was so intrigued when I found this one particular Celtics play on Synergy, even though the end result wasn’t pretty at all.

Starting off in horns with Rondo handling the ball at the top of the key, Sullinger and Pierce at opposite elbows, and Bass and Courtney Lee in the corners (And let’s take a moment to note that even when they do run horns, the Celtics line up weirdly. Most teams will have their two bigs occupy the elbows and their wings in the corners, but Boston has Pierce at the elbow and Bass – ostensibly their center in this lineup – in the right corner), the Celtics run a quick pass/pass-back – it’s not really a give-and-go, because Rondo doesn’t actually go anywhere before he gets the ball back – with Rondo and Sullinger. Immediately following receiving the ball back, Rondo gets a screen above the 3-point line from Pierce, kicking off that 1-3 pick-and-pop action.

At the same time, Lee is running the baseline from one corner to the other, and Bass sets him a screen at the right block to free him up for a right corner 3. Though he’s made just one of five 3’s from the right corner this season, Lee is a career 45.2% shooter from that spot, per NBA.com.

As Rondo comes around the screen, here’s where you see the multiple options kick in.

Option 1: Stop and pop jumper.

Option 2:Turn the corner and take it all the way to the rim.

Option 3: Penetrate and dump it off to Bass underneath the basket.

Option 4: Drive and kick to Lee for a corner 3.

Option 5: Hit Sullinger on the pick-and-pop.

Option 6: Find Pierce flaring out to the left wing on a screen-for-screener play. After Pierce screens Rondo’s man, Sullinger comes and sets a pick for Pierce, freeing him up to float to the wing for a 3.

Rondo chooses Option 2, and the result, as you can see, is pretty ugly. He tries one of those spinny layup things, and it doesn’t even come close to going in. But check this out:

Just before Rondo decides to try his circus shot, he’s drawn three defenders in the lane. Bass is wide open for the baseline dump off and Sullinger’s screen has freed Pierce up on the opposite wing because Pierce’s defender crashes hard on Rondo’s drive to the rim. A basket was there for the taking. Rondo just happened to make the wrong read on this play, something that doesn’t really happen all that often.

Boston ran a modified version of this play against the Bucks. However, rather than start the play from the top of the key, they ran it to the side, which removed the corner 3 option. Again Pierce flashes open on the screen-for-screener option, and this time with Bass acting as that second screener, he comes open on the pick-and-pop. The options are there, waiting to be pursued. Boston can have some fun with this action, and I’d really like to see them try it more.

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