In the NBA regular season, a great coach can get his team wins simply by having his players prepared. With less time between games, coaches don’t have the ability to game plan for each opponent, so they rely on the system and making on the fly adjustments. In the NBA Playoffs, that advantage in theory evens out. Everyone has more time, so even a poor coach should have enough time to put together a reasonable strategy. Where a great coach stands out is his ability to make adjustments, not only from game to game, but within the game itself. In Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brad Stevens had his team prepared and ready to attack mismatches. Fortunately for the Celtics, the Sixers never really changed their strategy throughout the game, so Stevens didn’t have to adjust either.
In this series cross-matches will be the norm, due to odd lineup construction on both sides. This is by design for Philadelphia, because of personnel, and out of necessity for Boston, due to injuries. Cross-matches general result in a mismatch one way or the other. Either a good offensive player draws a poor defender, or a good defender is wasted covering a lesser offensive talent. For the Celtics, this showed up with Jayson Tatum being guarded by J.J. Redick or Marco Belinelli for the bulk of the game.
Boston went right to Tatum in the contest’s opening minutes:
Boston spaces the floor really well here. Terry Rozier and Al Horford hit the corners and Aron Baynes is in the weakside dunker spot. Marcus Smart gets the ball at the top of the key. Because he has the ball, Ben Simmons has to play closer to him, as opposed to floating away like he can when Smart is off-ball. Tatum catches on the right wing and immediately attacks Redick off the bounce. He easily goes by Redick and gets to the rim where Joel Embiid is waiting. Earlier this season, Tatum would have tried to find another player or would have attempted a floater over Embiid. Having adjusted his game, he goes strong and draws the and-1 on Embiid.
Now let’s flip to a sideline out of bounds (SLOB):
Rozier screens for Horford, but that isn’t what Boston really even wants. Horford catches the inbound from Tatum, but immediately hands it back to him. Again, Tatum shows no hesitation. He gets Belinelli all crossed up and, with no rim protector in the game for Philly, he gets an easy layup.
Now Tatum is rolling. The only way the Sixers are slowing him down is to try and deny him the ball:
Horford is on the left wing with Tatum coming up from the baseline. Because it is Horford standing at the arc, Embiid can’t leave him to protect the paint. Redick is in a hard denial mode, because he hasn’t been able to stop Tatum once he catches the ball. The other six players on the floor? They might as well not even be out there. The three Boston players just clear out to the right side as far as they can. Tatum cuts hard for the handoff from Horford, but with Redick overplaying him, he backcuts Redick for the dunk. By the time Tatum catches the ball, there isn’t even a single Sixer in the paint to challenge him.
This final one shows what happens when a player has his confidence up and is rolling:
Tatum is feeling himself at this point in the game. He’s got Simmons on him now, because Philadelphia finally pulled Redick and Belinelli off him after 44 minutes. Tatum and Horford run a simple pick and pop. The 76ers coverage basically dictates Tatum should kick it back to Horford, as Simmons and Embiid both stick with him off the screen. But Tatum has it going and he drives right at Embiid for another score, again using his strength to finish through contact for the layup.
Stevens will bleed a mismatch or a set until the opponents stops it. We saw this time and time again with Isaiah Thomas last year. Or when Boston would run the curl play for Avery Bradley at least 10 times a game. Earlier this season, the Celtics employed a similar strategy with Kyrie Irving. Without either of those creators available to him, Stevens has to get a little more creative and has to trust the kids. In Game 1, Tatum paid Stevens back for putting his faith in him to carry the offense.
Playoff series are all about adjustments. Brett Brown never adjusted in Game 1, or at least not until it was far too late to matter. How Philadelphia comes out for Game 2 could then cause Stevens to have to adjust to the adjustment. And that is where the delicious chess match of the playoffs begins.