Do You Have What It Takes To Put Two On The Ball?
1:39 PM EST on December 19, 2023
Joe Mazzulla, head coach of the 20–5 Boston Celtics, likes guys who can put two on the ball. He likes it in his own players—putting two on the ball makes life easier for teammates—and he respects it in opposing players. For some players, says Mazzulla, putting two on the ball is enough all on its own: Even if the rest of your game is still developing, that you are able to put two on the ball gives you immediate value.
Third-year Celtics wing Sam Hauser can do it. "Guys realize his ability to put two on the ball, his ability to screen really well, so he’s doing a good job of screening differently versus different coverages," said Mazzulla, after Boston's win Friday over the Orlando Magic. "Teams are guarding him differently, so he’s got to adjust. He has an innate ability to put two on the ball." Hauser is giving the first-place Celtics nine points in 23 minutes per game, but it's this God-given ability to put two on the ball that really juices up Boston's whole deal. It's something Mazzulla has always like about Hauser: Last season, when Hauser was blossoming into a rotation player, Mazzulla praised Hauser's special "intangible dynamic" of being able to reliably "put two on the ball."
Kristaps Porzingis, too, has this inborn gift. "He has an innate ability to put two on the ball," Mazzulla raved after Boston's opening night victory. "Whether they're trying to pop and veer or whether they're trying to blitz him," Mazzulla continued, describing things that I definitely understand. For Porzingis, a seven-footer, this ability to put two on the ball is an incredible complement to his more traditional big-man skills. "Because of him we can get to some more post-ups like we did down the stretch and really change the spacing of the game throughout the game.”
But even for players for whom putting two on the ball is a natural and even possibly genetic ability, it still must be drilled for emphasis. The Celtics work in practice sessions to hone the putting of two on the ball. "The main thing we teach those guys is, ‘Did you put two on the ball?’ And they have to be able to put two on the ball with the catch and with the shot,” explained Mazzulla, back in October. "Once two are on the ball, is it drive to close out?" Very good question. I think it's obvious from Boston's record—and in particular their league-best 14–0 home record—that this practice is paying off. No team that I can think of does a better job of putting two or more on the ball.
For Mazzulla, putting two on the ball was a particular strength of last season's Celtics, who finished second in the East and advanced to the conference finals. "We have guys that can put two on the ball and create," he noted after the Celtics made a franchise record 27 three-pointers in a November win over the Knicks, particularly mentioning how putting two on the ball helped his team when running with smaller personnel groupings.
Unfortunately, he who lives by putting two on the ball sometimes dies by putting two on the ball, or in certain cases by not putting two on the ball. It appears even to be possible to put two on the ball, but wrongly. In a narrow loss to the Miami Heat last January, the Celtics wasted a late possession when Jayson Tatum threw a bad pass into the corner and had it intercepted by Tyler Herro. What went wrong? You might think this was from a lack of putting two on the ball, but you would be wrong. "I thought they had their offensive lineup on the floor, and they weren’t going to let [Tatum] get something, but if we could get two on the ball," lamented Mazzulla, after the loss, noting that Tatum did in fact put two on the ball before committing the fateful turnover. To paraphrase Bonnie Raitt, sometimes putting two on the ball just ain't enough. "I've got to put up a better play that kind of allows Tatum to see that better," explained Mazzulla, nobly redirecting blame back at his own play-calling.
This difficulty with putting two on the ball against the Heat reared its ugly head again in May, when Miami eliminated Boston from the playoffs in seven games. After Game 3, Mazzulla admitted that his Celtics were sometimes a little too ready to put two on the ball, which was somehow creating opportunities for Heat role-player Caleb Martin. Mazzulla explained that Martin is often the guy who benefits "if you put two on the ball with the shooter." This was something that the Celtics would need to improve with more discipline. This seemed to work out, in the sense that Boston won three straight to tie the series and force a Game 7; unfortunately, Martin scored a career-playoff-high 26 points in Game 7, pulled down 10 rebounds, and was the x-factor in a dominant Heat victory. Who is putting two on the ball now, you would've been right to ask.
Mazzulla's emphasis on putting two on the ball has been absorbed by colleagues and competitors alike. James Harden, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, explained after a divisional round game in the 2023 playoffs that he wondered on the key possession whether the Celtics "were going to put two on the ball," and when they did not he rose up and drilled the go-ahead game-winning three-pointer. To lose by putting two on the ball is unfortunate, but to lose from not putting two on the ball is downright unconscionable.
With failures like those still painfully in mind, Celtics assistant coach Tony Dobbins emphasizes more than ever the importance of putting two on the ball. "If they commit two on the ball and you make a quick pass out," he explained, of the message he's been drilling into Tatum and co-star Jaylen Brown, "the shot might actually come from the next guy." Unfortunately, says Dobbins, putting two on the ball is another one of those essential basketball acts that goes unheralded in today's numbers-obsessed basketball discourse. "Statistically, nowhere in the box score does that show up, but if you’re watching the game, that was a great read," said Dobbins, of a recent play by Brown. "He drew two on the ball."
At this point you must be asking yourself: Do I have an innate ability to put two on the ball? You just might. I urge you to pick up a basketball and kind of toss it around between your hands and see what happens.