The Boston Celtics were a bad basketball team last year. A severe lack of talent aligned with key injuries and an inexperienced head coach, and things got messy. On the fragile shoulders of an incompetent offense that was never able to embrace tried-and-true concepts, the Celtics inaccurately jabbed their way to 25 wins. Nothing was beautiful.

On offense, Boston was slow and allergic to the three-point line. According to SportVu, they finished as one of the five lowest teams in distance traveled per game—which measures how many miles the team covered on the court—and were 15th in pace (about six possessions per 48 minutes slower than the league leading Philadelphia 76ers). They were also 18th in threes attempted per game. Only Philadelphia and the Josh Smith-led Detroit Pistons were less accurate beyond the arc. Boston’s personnel wasn’t exactly screaming for more threes and a transition-based attack, but that didn’t make things any less disheartening.

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But amidst all this offensive indifference, there was one saving grace. With a roster that had no true center, Boston worked as hard as anyone on defense. They focused on limiting corner threes (all but removing them as an option for opposing teams), made smart rotations, took a conservative approach to defending the pick-and-roll, and made a habit of closing out hard on shooters all over the floor. These principles double as any successful basketball team’s foundation, even if the skill level wasn’t there to produce consistent results.

It was hard to identity any definite direction at times inside Boston’s chaotic environment, and the constant shuffling in of new faces didn’t help. But despite finishing 19th in defensive rating (24th after the All-Star break, when all eyes were locked on the lottery), working hard to stop the other team’s assault was it. Offense took a backseat. This season’s direction, then, is to create a capable offense. Using the tools at his disposal, Brad Stevens needs to fashion an offensive gameplan and identity. And the extremely early returns on this are good.

We’ve yet to see the 2014-15 Celtics take the floor in a meaningful game, and it’s unknown whether Boston’s drastically different approach to offense this preseason will spill over into sequences that matter months from today. However, if we assume at least a little bit that it does, now is the time to fear Stevens. Boston’s second year head coach has thus far approached exhibition basketball like a man who’s done his homework. The three ball is good. Attacking defenses before they have a chance to set up in the half-court is smart. There is passing, moving, cutting, screening, all of the good stuff so sorely lacking amongst the lethargy of last season.

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This year’s roster is better and more experienced than last season’s, and Stevens’s decision to give just about everyone on the team a green light makes them all that much better. The ball-handlers like Marcus Smart, Marcus Thornton, and Avery Bradley are unleashed, and the question of whether Jared Sullinger or Kelly Olynyk can consistently knock down threes is now second to “how can they get more open looks?”

The Celtics are averaging 29 threes per game so far, which ties the Cleveland Cavaliers for second most in the league. Perhaps more encouraging, though, is the fact that these shots are actually going in – Boston are the seventh most accurate team from behind the three-point line this preseason (36.9%). Smart (who’s shooting 23.1%), Jeff Green (31.2% in three games), and Thornton (38.9%) are all in the top-20 for three-point attempts per game. Meanwhile, Bradley is out of his mind, knocking down 46.9% of his 4.5 attempts on average. Sullinger is hoisting about the same number of threes per contest as Dirk Nowitzki, and has made over half of them. And Olynyk is helping himself to about three threes a night, knocking down a too-good-to-be-true 47%. 

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These numbers will likely eventually drop (or, in Green’s case, rise), But for now — when Boston doesn’t have access to drive-and-kick opportunities provided by Rajon Rondo, or rookie James Young’s creamy left-handed outside stroke — it’s exciting. During the experimental 44-minute game against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, even Brandon Bass made a corner three. In seven years as an NBA player, he’s 0-for-2 from that spot on the court.

As pointed out by the always fantastic MrTripleDouble10, Stevens is truly a kid in the candy store right now, skipping up and down the aisles in search of creative ways to create good looks behind the three-point line. Here’s one:

What looks like an alley-oop lob over the top from Olynyk to Sullinger turns into a one-handed touch pass out to Bradley on the wing. It’s not going to work on a regular basis (and may not even have happened on purpose), but the preseason is an incubator for experimentation. This particular play is certainly that.

Boston’s offensive rating is still below the league’s preseason average, barely hovering above one point per possession. But they’re seventh in pace, behind only Minnesota, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Brooklyn. They’re running off misses, using Smart and Bradley to pick up point guards full court—which simultaneously increases the game’s speed—and generally playing a much freer brand of basketball than the one we saw last season.

The credit goes to Stevens, who spent last season soaking up how the NBA’s game is different from the one he just left at Butler University. Speed is important, but so is simplifying what it is he wants the team to do really well on a night in, night out basis.

You can’t script everything as a coach. This is a game that’s played fast and the more options you can give on the fly, the better. And part of my job, and part of the development side of things is, to get these guys to be in a position where they can learn, grow, and read and make plays on the fly. And that’s what I want to see. I want us to be not as scripted, grind it out, call a set every time down the floor, I want to see us read and react to five options on each little action.

The players all agree, because it’s a fun way to operate. They’re “buying in,” and Stevens is making life easier for a team that has no expectations. Once the team’s overall talent level starts to rival its head coach’s brain power, the Celtics will be back in the forefront of NBA relevance. All of a sudden, it feels like this may happen sooner than later.

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Michael Pina

NBA writer. Published at Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, Bleacher Report, Grantland, and a few other very special places. Twitter: @MichaelVPina, E-mail: MichaelVPina@gmail.com

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