This is the first in a (hopefully) long series of posts detailing Boston’s in-game sets and adjustments during the playoffs, featuring a positive and a negative from each game.
Positive: Successful isolation plays
There’s a reason players who excel in “hero ball” sets are usually considered successful in the playoffs, especially in bloody Eastern Conference battles in which defense is the main focus and offense comes at a premium. To wit: Late in the fourth quarter, trailing by just three points, it felt like the Celtics were on the verge of being blown out, and when Carmelo Anthony scored a transition layup to push the lead to five, we pretty much agreed that the game was over. And we were correct.
It’s worth noting, however, that Boston was very successful in isolation sets (1.29 points per possession, per mySynergySports), mainly thanks to Paul Pierce. Pierce had a fairly inefficient shooting night (21 points on 6-15 shooting), but he got to the line eight times and converted all of his attempts. The reason he was able to get to the line so much was because he consistently beat his defender in isolation, forcing New York defenders to swing and hack at the ball as he went by. Whether or not all of these calls were justifiably fouls is irrelevant: If your man beats you and you swing at the ball, you are likely to be called for a foul. Pierce took full advantage of that on Sunday.
As you can see, Pierce worked in isolation to get a couple of his first half baskets (his iso fouls actually came in transition when his defender didn’t pick him up in time). In the first play, Pierce works his way to the elbow and just shoots and scores over J.R. Smith. In the second, he and Terry run a pick and pop that forces a switch (so that Shumpert, easily a superior defender, is defending Terry instead), avoids a reach by Smith and blows past him for the lay-in plus one.
Pierce establishing this effectiveness with his back to the basket led to several other nice first half plays by the Celtics, including a couple of cutting plays for Avery Bradley. Of all the players affected by Rajon Rondo’s injury, Bradley is perhaps the biggest victim. In Rondo’s absence, he has been forced to play point guard (a position that is clearly uncomfortable and difficult for him), and he has been largely taken out of his best offensive ability: reading defenses and making the appropriate cut off the ball for an easy layup. Without Boston’s best passer to see these cuts developing, Bradley has been handcuffed to a certain extent.
But when defenses ignore Bradley and double up on Pierce and Garnett playing with their backs to the basket, Bradley is presented with a fresh opportunity to dive to the hoop with two smart players ready to dish to him. Watch these two cuts, both resulting in an easy basket.
In both situations, New York’s reluctance to leave Pierce in a one-on-one situation in isolation results in an open lane for Bradley. In the first play, the assist goes to Kevin Garnett, but Bradley’s lane to the hoop is actually a result of Smith’s desire to help on Pierce’s one-on-one matchup against Jason Kidd, as you can see from this still-shot.
Once Pierce gets the ball, Bradley moves toward the top of the key, and Smith hovers in between the two. When Pierce ball-fakes toward Bradley, Smith is forced to take a step away, which clears enough room for the entry pass to Garnett. Garnett receives the pass and finds Bradley for the easy layup.
In the second play, New York’s defense is very confused from the beginning. Smith is again somewhat at fault, as he fades to the corner to guard Lee as soon as Bradley throws the entry pass to Pierce. But when Chandler comes over to double, obviously as afraid of the Pierce/Kidd matchup as Smith was in the first example, he leaves Bradley a completely uncontested lane down the middle of the floor. Pierce drops the ball off to Bradley who gets perhaps the easiest basket he’ll have in the entire series.
The problem with these isolation plays is that they start with one of Boston’s aging stars getting the ball with his back to the basket. This is a problem because getting Pierce and Garnett the ball proved to be an unreasonably difficult challenge for Boston’s ball-handlers.
Negative: Entry passes
Were you cursing and screaming at your TV in the second half? Did the preponderance of turnovers eventually turn you into one of the zombies from “28 Days Later,” yelling and screaming and spitting at strangers? Congratulations, you’re just like me.
Chances are the plays that drove you over the edge were the awful, awful entry passes Boston tried to throw throughout the game. The worst offender was Bradley, whose cuts to the basket and bad entry passes made him the worst kind of Jekyll and Hyde: too valuable to sit and too damaging to leave on the floor. Here are two of his four, both in the first half.
are doing basketball completely wrong may have a problem when Ruben Studdard Raymond Felton is reading your passes so easily he can leap up and intercept them before they reach their intended targets. Again, it’s hard to truly blame Bradley; he’s playing completely out of position and clearly doing the absolute best he can. But Pierce and Garnett are going to need to score quite a bit if Boston is going to win this series, and if they need the ball with their backs to the basket to create those baskets, the entry passes are going to have to be a heck of a lot crisper.
Not only will the passes have to be crisp, they will have to put Pierce and Garnett in situations that will allow for success. This one came in the fourth quarter, and although the game was basically over (you’ll notice that this was the final score), it was still an aggravating turnover.
The Celtics ran a beautiful set on this possession, one that I suspect we will see again before the series is over. Garnett first sets a back pick on Jeff Green, which forces Garnett’s man (Kenyon Martin) to follow Green off the pick into the left corner. Then Garnett, now covered by Carmelo Anthony, runs into the right corner and sets a screen for Pierce, forcing Pierce’s defender (Jason Kidd) to switch onto Garnett and Melo to switch onto Pierce. This meant that two players had really excellent mismatches: Garnett/Kidd and Green/Martin.
Here’s where that leaves us:
Bradley’s initial mistake is passing the ball to KG too early and too high, allowing Anthony to sneak in and bother the pass before Garnett can even come down and establish himself. This could have been remedied one of two ways.
- Pierce could have backed off to the 3-point line above the break, making Melo choose whether to help Kidd or stay at home on a good 3-point shooter.
- Bradley could have passed to Pierce and allowed Pierce to throw the entry pass, forcing Melo to respect Pierce’s 3-point shot.
On the one hand, you want to laud Bradley’s awareness in throwing Garnett the ball against an utterly inferior defender in Jason Kidd, as well as his awareness that throwing the ball high would keep it well out of Kidd’s reach. On the other hand, you’d like to see him recognize the right time and spacing in which to throw that particular pass. If a player can potentially be triple-teamed in the post, the play probably isn’t going to end well.
We can probably expect to see quite a bit of isolation on Tuesday, but keep in mind that isos aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as Boston proved today. If you can score efficiently out of isolation plays, lots of other interesting possibilities open up.
You know, as long as you can complete a damn entry pass.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.