The Indiana Pacers visited Boston on Friday night with a depleted roster, as they were without virtually their entire starting lineup, besides center Roy Hibbert. But Hibbert is one of the league's best interior defenders, so the Boston Celtics still had their hands full.
Before the game, coach Brad Stevens was asked about the importance of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger, as a means of removing the supermassive black hole that is Hibbert out of the paint and onto the perimeter, where his pull is not as asphyxiating.
"[Hibbert] makes a huge impact. He's as impactful as a defender as there probably is in the East," Stevens said. "Stretching the floor's important, ball movement's important, if you play stagnant and don't move the ball, you have no shot of getting a rebound and you have to take a contested shot, which is a bad deal. Those things are really important for us to have success."
The Boston Celtics did come away with a 101-98 victory, but it wasn't pretty. Here are three of our takeaways for 3 in the Key:
Boston sort of limited Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert had a monster night, with 22 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, but he could've been much more impactful had Boston not done a solid job of utilizing their starting frontcourt of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk. Hibbert was his typical dominant self, but the Celtics used Sullinger and Olynyk on drives, forcing other defenders to come in and help, which allowed teammates the freedom to roam.
In the first two clips above, Sullinger and Olynyk do a good job of reading the play and driving on Hibbert. As you'd expect, Hibbert does a good job of preventing an initial shot attempt, but the fact he started out on the perimeter is what allowed other teammates to get open.
"Preseason was kind of a farce that kind of helped me out," Sullinger joked when asked if defenders are playing him to shoot from the perimeter. "Shooting the ball the way I did in preseason, now people are running at me. Before I had wide-open shots, now they're running at me. You gotta go to the paint, that's what got me here, that's my bread and butter."
Sullinger is off to a terrific start this season, averaging 15.4 points per game, but he is still shooting just 14.3 percent from three, whereas Olynyk is going bananas from downtown, at 54.5 percent on 11 attempts. If Sullinger continues to have trouble from deep, it might be beneficial for the Celtics to shift him down to the low post depending on the matchup.
Forcing mismatches for Sullinger and putting him on the low post would likely force a help defender to come over, which would often be Olynyk's man. It'd put defenses in an impossible situation: Do you help off of Olynyk, who is red hot from three and can attack close outs by driving to the rim, or do you double Sullinger, a highly efficient low post scorer?
No matter the case, Olynyk and Sullinger are off to a good start this season, and much of that success can be pinned on the night-to-night game planning. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of consistency and overall production.
Olynyk, Zeller could be a formidable pairing
Brad Stevens has talked in the past about the importance of putting pure length on the floor. On Friday, he finally utilized a lineup we have been dying to see for extended minutes: a frontcourt pairing of Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller.
Both are long, athletic seven-footers, and complement each other extremely well on paper. Against Indiana, they certainly met our expectations. There's been a lot of chatter about the need for rim protection on this team, yet Zeller has consistently played fairly stout man-to-man defense against the behemoths Boston has faced, like Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert.
The stats will tell you that Hibbert shot 3-for-4 when defended by Zeller, but that is not due to poor defense, as it speaks to Hibbert's ability as a superstar. Zeller muscled Hibbert into difficult shots, most notably on the fourth clip above, where Hibbert receives the ball on the right block with 2:40 to go in the second quarter.
Zeller steers Hibbert into no man's land behind the basket, where he spins out and attempts a heavily contested fadeaway. Despite the sensational defense, the referee bails Hibbert out with a nonsensical whistle, much to the dismay of Brad Stevens, who looked like he just found out that someone ate all of his Halloween candy without asking.
On the following clip, where Zeller's hard luck continued, suffering a right corneal abrasion that knocked him out for part of the game, he also gets called for a foul despite doing a pretty good job of coming over and swatting the shot attempt. It's an arguable call, but Zeller is going to cleanly get this block more often than not.
Olynyk has been a tale of two cities thus far this season. In Boston, he has been aggressive and dynamic offensively, but on the road, KO has been a technical knockout in terms of decisiveness; Olynyk is averaging 19.5 points and 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes at home, but 12.3 points and 8.5 fouls per 36 minutes on the road. He's not scoring at the same rate, and he's unable to stay on the floor due to his fouling.
Though his defensive awareness has improved substantially, Olynyk must still improve leaps and bounds; physically, his lateral quickness still needs a lot of work, and mentally, he must continue to learn how to help and rotate. But this is to expected from a second-year player with limited experience in this role.
However, having the sheer size of both seven-footers on the court together could provide some match up advantages going forward. Zeller's ability to play the initial penetration effectively, contest rebounds and second chance opportunities could allow Olynyk to use his agility to move freely in the paint and clean up the loose change.
Experience matters as Boston misses chances
The Pacers are notorious for succeeding in dirty, grind-it-out defensive-oriented games, and while they didn't beat the Celtics, they did control the pace, which is the number of possession per 48 minutes.
Boston entered the night with one of the league's fastest paces, and Indiana with one of the slowest. This contest had a pace score of 93.88, which would rank 25th in the NBA, much to the delight of the Pacers.
But the statistic "pace" doesn't exactly explain the main issue. As deteriorating as Indiana's roster is at the moment, they are well seasoned at playing a consistent brand of basketball. They understand the value of possessions and that was never more evident than down the stretch where the Pacers consistently found their go-to options and tightened up defensively.
On the contrary, Boston's execution ebbed and flowed, which aided Indiana in their progressive comeback, allowing the game to be much closer than it probably should've been.
The Celtics had seven possessions in the final 90 seconds where a single stop, basket, or both would have sealed the game and allowed them to control their own fate. But they're still trying to figure out what they want to do when the game's pace naturally slows down and playing meticulously becomes paramount to success.
With about one minute remaining, Boston led by just one point and has an extremely strong possession. Kelly Olynyk had a chance at a three-point, but passes it up to Rajon Rondo, who makes a sensational touch pass to Jeff Green, who misses an open three. Missed shots happen, but what followed can't.
Rondo hustles and comes away with the offensive rebound with just 40 seconds left in the game. Time to reset or call a timeout, right? No. Instead, Rondo inexpediently attempts his patented behind-the-back fake into a highly contested floater. It was a senseless play from one of the smartest players in the league and is a prime example of how this team sometimes fails to value possessions towards the end of games.
The Celtics still don't consistently identify match up advantages or work to get the ball on multiple possessions to a player who clearly has it rolling. Nothing is more consternating to the fan constituency than watching a player make two or three great plays only to not see the ball come his way again.
A perfect example of this was Olynyk's hot shooting in a fourth quarter burst, where he hit two threes and an extremely high degree of difficulty one-footer fade of the drive. KO might be a little passive by nature, but his teammates do have the ability to speak up, find him, and encourage him to shoot the rock. Olynyk didn't have another shot in the game and his 5-for-7 shooting could have been parlayed into some additional playmaking to help soften the interior defense and open up some easy baskets down the stretch.
Tonight, the Boston Celtics will get an opportunity to build on Friday's performance, as they play in their first back-to-back on the road against the Chicago Bulls.