The Boston Celtics made sure the Miami Heat wouldn't end the Big Three era with a sweep on Friday evening, and the way it went about doing it was much different than many other Celtic performances.
Boston planted itself in the lane, forcing Miami to make quick decisions on how it would defend Rondo, Garnett and even Paul Pierce as they made their way into the paint. Rondo's ability to create at the rim, especially coming off his Game 2 performance that saw Rondo use a variety of ways to manufacture points, forced Miami to continue to play him honestly. Pierce used his usual, slow-legged spins and cuts to get to the rack on numerous occasions.
All in all, Boston shot its fewest amount of shots outside of the paint of the entire 2012 season. The Celtics made 29 shots in the paint. The previous season high? 25.
Clearly the Celtics coaching staff saw something that it could take advantage of and Boston did so quite nicely. According to the scouting service MySynergySports.com, the Celtics went to post-ups 16.2 percent of the time on Friday. Boston was 9-of-15 on post-up opportunities, or 60 percent.
But there was another area on Friday night that Boston used to take advantage of Miami. In the previous two games, the Heat made a habit of bodying up on Kevin Garnett, making him uncomfortable and forcing him out of the painted area. Boston could never fully establish him, and his patented pick and pop game consisted of numerous contested chances. In the first and second games alone, Garnett took more shots from 16-23 feet than he did at any other location on the floor.
That's not unusual for him, but when you take into consideration what he did in Game 3 it shows just how much Boston was committed to establishing him down low. The Celtics seemed to see a weakness that it wanted to exploit in Game 3 against a Miami team that is considerably smaller without Chris Bosh being able to be on the floor. From the beginning of the game Boston had its mind made up to attack the paint. It was how Miami tried to defend Garnett that made things interesting. Miami tried to front Garnett in the post.
The Heat have been able to do this with a rather high success rate in 2012. LeBron James spent a game against the Lakers earlier this season defending Pau Gasol very successfully by fronting him.
In Miami's first round series against the Knicks, the Heat defense fronted Carmelo Anthony time and time again and New York seldom showed an ability to deliver good enough entry passes when Anthony was fronted in order to capitalize on that type of defense.
This play is just a few possessions into the game. Rondo brings the ball up the floor and he's already looking towards Garnett. Ronny Turiaf fronts Garnett and Rondo does what he does best -- delivers an accurate pass over the top of the fronting Turiaf where only Garnett can make the catch. Kevin immediately catches the pass and goes to work on Turiaf, driving past him to he basket, utilizing a small fake and laying the ball of the glass and into the basket. Easy, right?
Apparently the Heat were highly committed to defending Garnett this way. The mindset was probably reasonable. Get physical with Garnett by fronting him and force him farther and farther away from the basket, and then make him give the ball up with the shot clock winding down.
This is the next Garnett shot coming off of a Heat front. Udonis Haslem immediately fronts Garnett at a pretty good spot on the floor. Mickael Pietrus clears out to the opposite side of the floor bringing Mike Miller with him, and that leaves the path to the hoop wide open so the Celtics could pass over the fronting defense. Marquis Daniels delivers a perfect pass, one of his most underrated abilities, and Garnett was able to place the ball in the basket and extend the Boston lead.
This time Garnett trots down the floor and muscles his way into the paint. LeBron James is defending him and before he can even begin to establish the positioning he wants -- whether fronting or anything else -- Rondo delivers a perfect pass to Garnett for another easy basket.
Later in the third quarter, Rondo brings the ball up the floor and quickly gets it to Garnett in one of his favorite areas of the court. Garnett could have put the ball on the floor and tried to drive around James, but given James' quickness and phenomenal defensive prowess, Garnett probably would not have been able to get a good enough look at the basket. Instead, he went into vintage-mode. Garnett backed down James, delivered a fake (not really a Hakeem Olajuwon Dream Shake like the ESPN team noted during the game) and put the ball cleanly onto the rim, got the bounce and made the basket. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.
Miami tries to defend Garnett again by fronting in the fourth quarter and, well, the result wasn't great. Rondo brings the ball up the floor and James picks up Garnett. Chalmers defends the entry pass very well at first. He jumps and prevents Rondo from delivering a safe pass over the top of the front, so Rondo is forced to give up the ball to Pierce. Rondo swings the ball over to Paul who quickly delivers a pass over the top of the front, into the outstretched arms of Garnett and into a position where Kevin can easily capitalize on the pass. Ho-hum.
Boston was not perfect by any means on Friday night, and Miami did use the front with some success throughout the course of the game. However, defending Garnett in that way with Rondo running the point poses a rather large challenge for the Heat. Rondo is already one of the game's most precise passers, so giving him a large window behind the defense to deliver a pass is not ideal. If Rajon can make a habit of fitting the ball into much tighter spaces than a fronted Garnett, then the Heat will have to be much better if they intend to use this formula against Boston.
Miami has to be ready to bring help when Rondo lobs the ball over the top. Fronting is usually a good defense to utilize when trying to prevent the offense from driving. However, Miami might have been more effective on Friday if its ball pressure on Rondo (and the rest of the Celtics) had been tighter when it chose to front. When the ball pressure isn't as tight, Boston's passing lanes aren't as crowded and Rondo can simply sit back and decide when and where to lob the ball over the top.
Miami will surely change the way it defends Garnett in Game 4, and Boston will have some new wrinkles as well. Doc Rivers mentioned on Saturday that the Celtics want to continue to run in transition. Those looks are initiated by getting stops on defense.
Rivers also mentioned that Dwyane Wade will likely be much more aggressive in Game 4. Boston is preparing for that and will be ready. With Chris Bosh still sidelined and the Heat's frontcourt often consisting of Shane Battier, LeBron James, Joel Anthony or Ronny Turiaf, the Celtics will have ample opportunities to capitalize on those match-ups like they did on Friday night. If Boston can adjust to Miami's adjustments and still find a way to establish itself in the paint again, then this series has a good chance of going back to Miami tied at two games apiece.
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