NBA Finals Preview: When The Celtics Have The Ball

Darius Soriano —  May 31, 2010

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As the old saying goes, defense wins championships.  And since the mantra of the site is “the Lakers will only go as far as their defense will take them”, I think it’s best to start our Finals preview with the the Lakers D when the Celtics have the ball.  If the Lakers are to win this series, we all understand that they’ll also need to score the ball, but slowing down the Celtics’ attack will be just as important.  When you’re facing a defensive powerhouse like Boston, you can’t rely on your offense to win you games as they’ll never allow enough points for that to be a winning strategy.  So, the Lakers must get stops.  But how to get them?

Before we get into the sets that Celtics run, we need to explore the individual match ups in this series.  Yes, the success of the Lakers D will be dependent on the team structure and the schemes that the coaches deploy.  But, it all starts on the individual level and that means match ups.  So, the first question is who will guard who?  And even more specifically, who will guard Rondo.  When I exchanged emails with some of our long time commenters, nomuskles was wondering the same thing:

I’m interested to see how the Lakers decide to play Rondo. He’s much improved his scoring ability and decision-making. There’s been a lot of talk about how deadly Rondo has become this year. The crucial question is, can the Lakers make his life difficult and disrupt what Boston wants to do on offense? Against Phoenix, the Lakers showed that they are quite capable of mental lapses in coverage that resulted in wide-open looks for shooters. Being on the same page defensively is critical if the Lakers want to hoist another trophy.

When that question was put to Kwame A., he responded with the answer that most fans probably think is most likely:

The Rondo issue is a tricky one.  Fish really may do just as well as Kobe would guarding Rondo, but what makes me think Kobe should guard Rondo is the Ray Allen factor.  Kobe is not the type of defender that excels at running around screens and staying with a dead-eye shooter.  Kobe is much better on-ball, although Rondo ‘aint no duck walk’, Kobe needs to get the first shot at him.

Ultimately, I agree with Kwame A.  Kobe, at this stage in his career should not be asked to chase Ray Allen around screens and then stay with him when he’s on the weak side in spot up situations.  Plus, this is the way that the coaches have decided to guard Rondo since game 3 of the 2008 Finals.  In the remaining 4 games of that series and the 3 games that Kobe’s played versus Boston in the past two regular seasons (Kobe missed a game this year), he’s been deployed on Rondo.  So, if Kobe is on Rondo, the rest of the match ups should shake out this way: Fisher/Allen, Artest/Pierce, Gasol/Garnett, and Bynum/Perkins.  If the match ups do play out this way, the Lakers will not only need great individual defensive performances from all these guys but they’ll also need them to be keyed in to the Celtics offensive sets as they are a team that focuses heavily on teamwork and execution to get their baskets.

And when analyzing the Celtics sets through Synergy Sports’ database, it was this teamwork and high level of execution that stood out.  The Celtics offense actually is not that complicated.  They run P&R’s with Rondo, stagger screens for Ray Allen, isolations for Pierce, and post ups for KG/’Sheed/Perkins.  But within these base plays, there are several options on each action and the Celtics consistently seek out the extra pass in order to get a better shot.  This is where the Lakers discipline will be tested because even if they are able to shut down Boston’s primary option on a play, the C’s willingness to move the ball or reset their offense will test any defensive scheme and the Lakers will need to be able to rotate to the next player and shift their defense to account for these second and third options that are built into their sets.

A perfect example of this is evident in the baseline stagger screen action that the Celtics run for Ray Allen (and sometimes Pierce). Kwame A. explains:

Defensively, the Lakers have to create a plan to deal with the pin-downs when pierce/allen come to catch and garnett/davis are setting the screen.  These guys set great (illegal) screens, so Pierce/Allen usually have the option of an open shot, or they get the defense to get confused, both defenders go to Pierce/Allen and they both throw a great quick bounce pass to the mobile big who can roll and dunk or pick and pop.  It is a staple play and we will need to rotate weakside help over to prevent the dunk, hopefuly leaving rondo open on the weakside for an ugly jumper.

After looking at this play ran a bit more closely, what I saw was that Rondo starts out with the ball at the top of the key while Ray Allen starts out on the baseline either right outside the lane line or positioned right in the middle of the lane.  After Rondo calls out the play, Allen proceeds to run off a screen from one of the C’s big men and then curl to the opposite wing where Rondo then looks to hit him with a pass.  However, on this action there are a myriad of options and the Celtics will run this play looking for the one that is most open.  If that means hitting Allen curling to the wing than the pass is delivered there – where Allen is in position to shoot his jumper.  However if the big man guarding the second screener (who is usually Perkins) “shows” out to contest the pass to Allen, Rondo will hit that screen man with a pass as he’s the player that’s open or if  Allen does receive the pass but is covered well, he’ll also look to pass to the player that just set the screen for him.  In either case, the rolling big man either has an easy shot at the rim or he has the option to pass the ball to either the other big man that is diving to the rim from the opposite side or to the other wing player that is positioned cross court (usually Paul Pierce spotting up for a three pointer – as seen here in the first play of the highlight).

As you can see from the highlight, the quick ball movement and unselfishness leads to a wide open shot from one of the better spot up shooters in the league.  If the Lakers are to contain this action (and others just like it that involve Pierce on the strong side) they’ll need to fight through screens and help each other at every turn (while still recovering and/or rotating).  And this is where the doggedness of Fisher (and Artest) comes into play.  Fisher is one of the better players the Lakers have at fighting through screens to stick to his man or initiating enough contact that he’ll make the refs decide if the screen being set is legal or not – something that is important against a Celtic team that sets…um…some of the better moving screens in the league (as Kwame described above). And while Fish is undersized in being able to contest Allen’s jumper, he is (besides Sasha) the best at playing this action and it’s one of the main reasons I’m on board with Fish on Allen (with Kobe on Rondo).

But slowing these screen actions in the C’s half court sets are only one concern.  The other main way the Celtics get shots are in transition.  Rajon Rondo is a demon in the open court and he’s got some of the best court vision in the entire league.  This leads to him being able to get his own shot by getting all the way to rim on “one man fast breaks” and also controlling the tempo on the break so that when Pierce and Ray Allen run to the 3 point line he can hit them in transition for wide open threes.   So, in order for the Lakers to slow this aspect of the Celtics’ offense down, they’ll actually need to pull on their experiences against the Suns where  they too excelled in running to the three point line with a crafty PG feeding them for open jumpers.  Obviously Rondo is different than Nash in a lot of ways, but in this instance they’re quite similar.  If you close off the lane against him and then recover to shooters, the Celtics then become a half court team and one of their main ways of scoring the ball has been slowed (or even neutralized).

In the end, the Celtics actually embody a lot of the offensive traits that the Lakers have seen from their other opponents in these playoffs.  Like OKC, they have a tremendous talent at SF, a physically gifted PG (who is a much better play maker), and are a team that runs a lot of screen actions and pin downs to free up their wings.  Like Utah, this Boston team is well coached and disciplined and they have no qualms with pulling the ball back out and resetting their offense to get the look they want.  They’re more than willing to make the extra pass and thrive on making defenses work and react to their precision.  And like the Suns, this team is excellent in transition with a penetrating PG that loves to set up shooters that run the three point line while looking for bigs (KG/Perkins) that run to the rim.  Plus, in the half court (like Phoenix) this team will also run a lot of P&R where the PG is looking to penetrate the lane and either get his own lay up or collapse the defense so his shooters get good looks (and I haven’t even mentioned the pick and pops with Wallace – which is very similar to what the Suns do with Frye).  So, in a way, the Lakers should be prepared for what they see from the Celtics.  However, they must also understand that the C’s boast the best combination of players in these roles and that the combination of these traits – while not making them the best offense the Lakers have faced – make them quite dangerous.  And to beat them and slow them down the Lakers will need to show the Celtics that they play defense too and that the top 5 defensive ranking that the Lakers held for most of the season is not a fluke.  Whether they can do it or not remains to be seen, but I have confidence that the Lakers are up to the task.

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Many have commented that there seemed to be a section missing on Artest vs. Pierce.  Sadly this portion was left out of the post and not added back in before it went up.  So without further ado, the missing section on the match up at SF – this section was to appear right after we discussed the C’s screen action in the half-court.)

But besides the screen actions and the P&R’s run with Rondo, the other main option of the Celtics half court attack is Paul Pierce.  The Celtics run a variety of screen actions and also place Pierce in isolation situations to take advantage of his all around offensive skill set.  Being the Celtic’s leading scorer, slowing Pierce down is going to be a key factor in this series.  In 2008, Pierce’s ability to beat the Lakers SF’s (RadMan, Walton) off the dribble and create space for his jumpshot made it so Kobe had to spend a lot of time on #34 – wearing Kobe down and making him less effective on both sides of the ball over the course of the series.  However, this season the Lakers have Ron Artest to put on Pierce and it’s this match up that has everyone waiting in anticipation.  And the regular season results from this match up seem to favor the Lakers.  In the two games this season Pierce averaged 13 points (5 below his average), while shooting a combined 4-11 on three pointers.  In the game that that the Lakers won, Pierce was hounded into comitting 4 turnovers and had 5 fouls (none bigger than the offensive foul that Artest drew at the end of the game that allowed Kobe to eventually sink his game winner.)  Now, we must understand that coming into this series Pierce is playing very well and it will take a great effort from Ron to slow him down.  Pierce is coming off (probably) his best game of the playoffs as he scored 31 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the series clincher over Orlando.  However, if Ron plays Pierce closely and takes advantage of the fact that Paul’s first step is slightly diminished, he should be able to stick with him off the dribble while also being able to contest Pierce’s jumper.  This will be easier said than done as Pierce is one of the best players at creating his own shot, but if Ron plays disciplined D (as he has these playoffs), I expect that we’ll be treated to a level of defense that we all wished the Lakers could have played on Pierce in 2008 where he earned the Finals MVP.

Tomorrow, when the Lakers have the ball…

Darius Soriano

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