What the Celtics Can Take From the International Game

Nov 18, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives the ball against Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) in the second half at TD Garden. Dallas defeated the Celtics 106-102. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 18, 2015; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives the ball against Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) in the second half at TD Garden. Dallas defeated the Celtics 106-102. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports /

The international game is ahead of the curve in many departments

So far, in the Rio Olympics, we have seen a talented U.S. mens basketball team struggle to win against international competition. With arguably the best players in the world not named Stephen Curry and LeBron James, the U.S has been having problems on both ends of the floor.

The team has had issues closing games. In group play against Australia, Serbia and France the U.S. only won by an average margin of 5.3 points per game. While some might say chemistry and perhaps lack of focus are issues for this U.S. squad, it is also well-known that the international game is also improving at a very rapid pace.

So are there any parts of the international game that the Boston Celtics could use this season?

In the international game, zone defense is much more popular than in the NBA. The reason why the NBA does not see much zone is because of the three second in the paint rule. This being said, Brad Stevens has occasionally experimented with playing a zone defense, particularly off of inbound plays. His attention to detail and his ability to experiment on defense helped the Celtics finish as one of the top six teams in defensive efficiency last year.

While it is unorthodox, there are many benefits to playing zone. First of all, NBA offenses run most plays based on man-to-man defenses. When they are forced to go against a zone, it may throw off the offense and opposing teams are forced to improvise. In a zone, teams are unable to exploit potential height and weight mismatches.

This is crucial for the Celtics, especially in the case of Isaiah Thomas. Even though the Celtics have some of the league’s best individual defenders in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, Thomas’ lack of size presents many issues on defense, especially against a taller guard lineup. With a zone, Thomas would not be forced to matchup against a taller guard but could rather use his quickness on the perimeter to pester ball handlers.

Unlike the NBA, the international game stresses team play. Last year in the EuroLeague, the league’s leading scorer averaged under 20 points per game. The international game relies more on ball movement than individual performance.

With the addition of Al Horford, players like Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder will all have to sacrifice their numbers in order for the team to win. The Celtics did a good job last year in making sure everyone was involved. They ranked sixth in assists per game but Thomas still ranked 18th in field goal attempts. In last years playoffs, Thomas was viewed as the only scoring option as he attempted close to 20 shots per game. This cannot happen if the Celtics want to be successful this year. They need to play unselfish basketball and more as a collective unit.

It has become the accepted belief that a team needs a designated scorer in order for them to win games. This is simply false, with the San Antonio Spurs as a prime example of how you can win without having a primary scoring threat. After losing only 15 games last year, the Spurs, a team comprised of many foreign players, had zero players in the top-25 in field goal attempts, and only two players in the top-90. The Celtics should take to the Spurs’ success and realize that a team can win without having a ball dominant player.

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The international game is still more dependent on the three-ball, though. It is important to note that the three-point line is closer to the hoop in the international game. Still, the three-ball, particularly catching-and-shooting, is a very important element of the international game. We also have the international game to thank for showing that big men such as Dirk Nowitzki can effectively shoot from beyond the arc.

It is well acknowledged that last year the Celtics struggled from beyond-the-arc. They ranked 11th in three-point attempts but almost dead last in three-point percentage. Even though Marcus Smart was a poor three-point shooter, it is still perplexing how the Celtics shot this poorly from three-point range.

With ball movement comes better spacing, and with better spacing comes better shot selection. It is known now that the catch-and-shoot is a much more efficient shot than a pull-up or isolation shot. The Celtics will thus need to improve their overall spacing to allow for more  catch-and-shoot attempts from beyond three.

Next: Area of Improvement for Each Starter

While watching the international game one notes that it is more free flowing and more reliant on skill rather than brute athleticism. The Celtics can apply this, along with many other aspects from the international game, to use for the season ahead.