WALTHAM – The Bulls gave Boston a pop quiz. John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards are handing out midterms, and the Celtics don’t have much time to study.
Einstein could have solved relativity before the Wizards’ backcourt, but Brad Stevens and his staff will try to find an equation that answers the problem. Much like last series, the Celtics are uniquely equipped to go against Washington with two of the best defenders at their position in Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. But there are many question to answer beyond the obvious question of who guards whom. That’s something Stevens is still formulating, allegedly.
When asked if he anticipates any lineup changes, Stevens carefully responded, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I anticipate any lineup changes.”
So the question of whether Amir Johnson will return to the starting lineup – which was the move all season long, including games against Washington when he was available – is as clear as the LA horizon at rush hour. That was already covered in detail here, so the focus is on handling the backcourt.
Washington is coming off a tour de force Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks, in which Wall and Beal combined for 73 points in 78 minutes. An advanced analysis of those numbers would assess that performance as pretty damn scary. Wall is playing with a swagger that is making him unstoppable, even going so far as to trash talk Falcons receiver Julio Jones and Atlanta Hip Hop icons Gucci Mane and Quavo.
“I told ‘em I was going to get 35 or more and we was going to win,” Wall said Friday night. “And we did that. For the culture.”
These two guards present a few major challenges. Wall is unstoppable in transition on both ends and Beal isn’t far behind. In the half court, Wall can explode and finish against any defense from any angle, while Beal could drill a pull-up inside a phone booth. If Beal has enough space to bring the ball up from his dribble, he’s shooting and probably hitting.
Wall runs the high pick-and-roll to perfection, with a historically great first step and a money pull-up from the foul line extended. That shot is almost unstoppable. The goal is to limit his chance to take it and at practice Saturday, Marcus Smart told CelticsBlog he has an answer.
“Just keep him in front, being solid on him,” Smart said. “A lot of guys, you know, they give him too much space. He’s a quick guy, so you have to respect him on that fact. Just be solid and don’t try to do too much on him.”
Dennis Schroder was charged with the unenviable task of guarding Wall in crunch time in the first round and gave Wall about two steps of space, often sinking deep behind the three-point line when Wall was dribbling as the play to develop. This is mostly because Wall is a mediocre three-point shooter and Schroder wants an extra sliver of time to react to Wall’s moves when he attacks. But this didn’t work, at all.
Smart tried this back in the regular season and learned the hard way. Wall’s reaction speed is off the charts. He could flip a light switch, get in bed and watch every Fast & the Furious movie before the lights went out. When defenders give him space to move, he locks in on them, waiting for the second they take their eyes off of him to see the incoming screen. By the time they look back, he’s already at the rim.
Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat can set solid screens, so leaving Wall space to move around a pick can spell death for the defense. While the Hawks just simply zoned up on screens while the point defender rolled over the screener, the Celtics actively ice picks. That has the point stepping over the screen as soon as possible to prevent them from getting blown out of the play. The danger of this is, of course, that Wall can cross back the other way and carve out the defense.
Wall dominates space, no matter where it is. He’s slippery and dexterous, able to get anywhere when he can get momentum. So bodying him up tight is ideal, just hard to pull off consistently. When CelticsBlog asked Smart if he wants to get up into Wall’s body on-ball, he didn’t hesitate.
“Uh definitely. When you get a guy like him, where he’s quick and he’s good with the ball, if you can let him dance around, it’s going to be hard or anybody to guard him.
“But if you get in his airspace, you limit what he can do and you force him to do what you want him to do, it makes it a little bit tougher for him.”
This means no limits to how high they press him. Schroder had a rough go defending Wall, thinking he was safe to give Wall some distance even when guarding him above the three-point line. But Wall knows he can still get to the rim from 30 feet out without issue.
Wall sets up deep and waits for a vulnerability. When Schroder hears the call for a screen left and steps up on Wall, John blows him away and hits an incredible layup over Paul Millsap. That Neo-esque reaction speed can expose the micro-second a defender opens up a weak spot, so Smart will have to concentrate at a level unlike anything he has done before.
The Celtics like to double high at time in the fourth quarter, but this is a dangerous risk. Wall invites the doubles, confident he can slip by them and weave to the basket. He has mastered the art of attacking a closeout, using the defender’s momentum against them to limit their ability to react.
Then there’s transition, the place where Wall dominates more than almost any other player in the NBA. Of the 20 players with at least 300 transition possessions in the regular season and playoffs, Wall ranks third in points per possession created through points and assists at 1.539 per Synergy Sports, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James and a hair ahead of James Harden. Beal isn’t too far behind at 10th on the list at 1.468 ppp. Isaiah Thomas, ranks 16th at 1.386 ppp, just ahead of Russell Westbrook.
“It’s going to be fun,” Smart said. “We gotta keep ‘em out of transition. You know, you got two guys that have been playing very well and part of the game is transition and that’s where they get comfortable.”
This is the biggest objective for the Celtics. Brad Stevens said he has four pillars to this series – which he would not disclose -- but one of them appears to be containing Wall and Beal in transition.
“In transition he is a nightmare. He’s as good as it gets in transition,” Stevens said of Wall. “You gotta do a great job of setting your defense early and then, like we’ve talked about with Jimmy Butler, with Wall and Beal, we’re not going to stop them. You just gotta do your best to make everything as difficult as possible and that’s easier said than done.”
Jae Crowder, who will often serve as the backbone of the transition defense in the fourth quarter, is ready for this challenge.
“They score a lot of points in transition. I think they had 15 points transition in the first quarter last night in the game in Atlanta, so that’s their DNA is transition first gets those guys going. And then it’s Beal and Wall, a heavy dose of those guys shooting a lot of balls and taking a lot of shots. So we’ve got to stop those guys first.”
The Celtics ranked ninth in the league in transition points per possession allowed in the regular season and first round, while the Wizards ranked first per Synergy Sports. But in the first round, they ranked second to just the Warriors. That was largely due to the Bulls being a mediocre transition team without Rajon Rondo, but a credit to their improved defensive communication and tracking back after giving up defensive rebounds.
“We’ve struggled here and there but we’ve done some great jobs at times as well,” Crowder said of the transition defense. “I think this series we’ve got to just keep our emphasis at a high level with that because that’s what that team is made of is transition and getting up and down. We’ll keep a great amount of emphasis on that and hopefully we’ll just get better as the series goes on.”
The key will be early positioning off of shots. When defenders are running back on defense with Wall stampeding behind them, the play is already over. Marcus Smart backpedals like a cornerback when going against Wall, knowing it’s his only chance to react if Wall catches up. The Celtics found an effective method to containing transition and forcing the offense to reset by getting down early and shading Wall into a sideline trap.
This will work well in transition after misses, but will be hard to pull off against turnover or long rebound fast breaks. With the Celtics throwing up 40 threes in the last few games, they will need to continue to shoot well if they want to limit transition points for Wall. The team that won the fast break points battle won each game in the regular season, so that trend should continue.
These two teams didn’t see each other at full strength until the Celtics’ March 20 110-102 win, where they dominated the second half and held a 15-20 point lead for a full quarter. Wall was a -21 in that game, with more turnovers (5) than field goals (4). It was one of the few games all year where both Wall and Beal were relatively contained, but those nights may not exist in the playoffs.
When the Celtics close games out with their IT&D lineup, hiding Thomas will be a major challenge. There were some games this year where Thomas guarded Wall for some of the crunch time minutes, but that’s not going to happen much in this series. Thomas is physically pushing his limits between his basketball and life challenges and Stevens would be wise to not burden him too much on defense. This was the strategy against the Bulls, although they made it easy for him by playing Isaiah Canaan way too much.
Washington will close out games with Porter, Morris, and Gortat, so Thomas will have to hide on Porter or Morris while Crowder takes the other. The Celtics can go back to the zone they broke out in Chicago, or they can switch everything. Switching means Wall-Beal ball screens will switch Bradley onto the ball and Smart onto Wall, which works for Boston. But when the Wizards start using Thomas’ man to set the screens, the Celtics will have to scramble to protect the mid-range without leaving the weak-side corner exposed.
The Celtics covered up their weaknesses effectively against Chicago over the course of the series. That was against a hobbled overachieving team that had lost their floor general. Washington’s only weakness right now is their depth, but that won’t matter much in a close game late. It will come down to blood, sweat, and tears.