Brogdon’s drives to the hoop this season could be important in the postseason.
The first basket scored by Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon against the Bucks on Thursday didn’t look particularly impactful at a glance.
With just over a minute remaining in the first quarter, Brogdon — who missed his first two shots — dribbled to the top of the key, pursued by both Jevon Carter and Jae Crowder. Carter split off to go defend Grant Williams in the corner, leaving Crowder with the Brogdon assignment.
Crowder was not up to the task. Brogdon took a quick crossover, Crowder opened up defensively, and Brogdon had a free lane to the basket. Easy layup, two points, just a drop in a bucket that the Celtics filled with 140 drops in their 41-point victory.
Brogdon was aided by Robert Williams’ presence on the floor — Giannis Antetokounmpo was far out of the play and never really made a move toward the driving guard, presumably in order to prevent Williams from flying in for a lob.
But the relationship across the board is symbiotic with Brogdon, whose drives have made a significant impact all season. As noted by the Ringer’s Brian Barrett, Brogdon has gotten downhill against the Bucks often — a total of 34 times this year. He’s shooting 10-for-16 from the floor on those drives, and he earned 10 trips to the free-throw line.
Across the league, having a player who drives often is crucial for an offense, which makes sense conceptually — drives soften and collapse the defense, opening up opportunities on the perimeter.
The Kings have the NBA’s best offense, and the engine of that offense — star guard De’Aaron Fox — drives 15.6 times per game per the NBA’s stats (11th in the NBA). The Knicks have built the league’s fifth-best offense with a heavy emphasis on drives — Jalen Brunson averages 19.6 drives per game, which is fourth-most in the NBA, while R.J. Barrett averages 12.4, and Julius Randle clocks in at 9.3. Even the Nuggets, whose offense is built around Nikola Jokic’s singular ability to post-up, have Jamal Murray (10.0 drives per game), while the 76ers — led by Joel Embiid — have James Harden at 13.5.
The Celtics — who have the NBA’s third-best offense — are more equitable, and they have benefited enormously from Brogdon’s drives. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown drive 11.3 and 11.2 times per game, respectively. Brogdon adds 11.0 to the mix, while Marcus Smart and Derrick White clock in at 7.2 and 6.0.
Those benefits should extend to the postseason as well. Last year, the Celtics had three players who drove 11 times or more over the course of a game: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and … Dennis Schröder, whose struggles threatened to derail the Celtics’ entire season (and whose removal from the rotation coincided suspiciously with the Celtics’ second-half surge). The Celtics dealt Schröder near the deadline, which was a no-brainer move but still took away one of the players capable of handling the ball and collapsing the defense. The Derrick White acquisition helped, but he only drove 6.8 times per game — just over half of Schröder’s total.
Enter Malcolm Brogdon, who has largely replaced the good things Schröder brought to the table (paint touches that collapse the defense) while offering many of the things Schröder couldn’t (a crazy 3-point percentage, efficient scoring, and a near-perfect performance of the sixth-man role).
And, of course, the Celtics didn’t have Schröder for the postseason, which put more pressure on Tatum and Brown to create. Tatum’s drives per game swelled to 14.1 during the postseason, while Brown’s total spiked to 12.3. That’s not entirely a bad thing — more scoring opportunities for your best players are generally good. This year, Tatum drives 13.7 times per game when the Celtics win, while Brown drives 11.9 times. But Brogdon adds another element to the Celtics’ offense, and — importantly — can create a few more chances for Tatum and Brown behind the 3-point line off the ball, where both players are deadly.
An important key to all of this is Brogdon’s mentality. The 30-year-old guard spent plenty of time as an offense’s top option with the Pacers, and he has evidence of what he can accomplish on his own. It’s impressive — Brogdon was an All-Star, and he won Rookie of the Year during his first season with the Bucks — but he’s putting together one of his best seasons to date as the first player off the bench. He seems to have carved out a perfect fit on a team with a real shot at a championship.
“I’m at a point in my career maturity-wise — I understand my role, and I understand my role changes, and I’m willing to embrace that whether my role is going to be smaller or bigger that night,” Brogdon said earlier this week. “So it’s never an issue for me to change my role, to change how I’m playing in order to help the team win.”
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