Several weeks ago we dove into the strategies the Celtics have implemented to minimize Kyrie Irving’s deficiencies in defending the pick-and-roll. The quick synopsis is thus: Boston successfully built an elite-level defense despite Irving’s known warts, thanks in large part to a series of beautifully executed switches.
Teams are beginning to take note of the Celtics’ schemes, and are finding interesting ways to exploit them. Today we’ll take a look at how the Dallas Mavericks leveraged their knowledge of Boston’s tendencies to create favorable matchups in isolation, specifically for Harrison Barnes.
The following video highlights the approach they used.
Dallas consistently returned to the well that was Barnes isolating at the top of the key, as a relatively reliable source of points (they ran the same play with Dirk Nowitzki on several occasions as well). The Mavs were right to run with what worked, but that doesn’t make the strategy they implemented a league-wide panacea for the Celtics defense.
Scoring in isolation is a difficult task, and being able to exploit Irving’s individual defense requires personnel capable of both scoring efficiently and effectively navigating a sea of help defenders.
That is to say, just getting Irving isolated isn’t enough. Teams need to be able to generate offense via the matchup, which isn’t a foregone conclusion. In some cases Irving will do a sufficient job.
In other instances his teammates will collapse driving and passing lanes.
The difference between a few inches covered in fractions of seconds is monumental, and the Celtics tend to get to the right places at the right time more often than not. Dealing with a steady diet of isolation attacks actually makes that process more manageable. Rotating as a unit against offenses that prize ball and player movement is more challenging than attempting to stop a single opponent attempting to score.
Boston might run into more trouble should a player like LeBron James fill the role that the Mavs used Barnes in. Barnes scored efficiently, but he did little in the way of creation. A passer of James’ caliber can take a stagnant possession and turn it into efficient offense through force of gravity and otherworldly vision.
Only a handful of people have that kind of talent, and in that sense the Celtics should take some solace. Dallas may have laid Boston’s greatest point of vulnerability bare to the world, but they couldn’t take advantage of it enough to win, and other teams are likely to have similar difficulty.
What matters more here is the process. That the Mavericks had a gameplan specifically tailored to the Celtics’ defensive philosophy is indicative of how quickly teams absorb information. Hunting out isolation opportunities may not have translated to a victory, but it suggests a an intelligence and malleability in game-planning that isn’t going away.
The NBA is an ever-evolving landscape of strategies. Dallas’ approach to attacking Boston’s defense is just the first in a long line of inventive approaches that the team is likely to see. It’s possible that none of them will work. The Celtics are loaded with long, athletic defenders, and they’ve already demonstrated an incredible ability to function in unison with one another.
It’s also possible that someone will eventually crack the code. The cat and mouse games that are to come will be enjoyable either way.