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How the Pelicans’ interior defense nullified the Celtics

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The Pelicans did a great job of forcing the Celtics to settle for mid-range jumpers and shots from three

NBA: Boston Celtics at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In the immediate aftermath of the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, the Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans were faced with the unenviable task of playing a competitive basketball game. In fact, many teams were presented this mental and emotional challenge, and any and all of them can be forgiven for any perceived failures to perform.

As has become customary, the Celtics fell behind early and attempted a resilient comeback down the stretch. This time it wasn’t to be. Missing both Jayson Tatum and Enes Kanter, the Celtics were unable to assert their will against a far sterner Pelicans team to the one they beat only 15 days ago.

The player who the Celtics missed most was Kanter, as they struggled to gain any traction on the interior. Derrick Favors was a difference maker. After having sat out the teams previous meeting, he is the sort of big man the Celtics have struggled with this year, and he proved to be a thorn in their side throughout this game.

For Boston, when they are unable to drive, their offense is prone to stagnate. It is predicated on interior scoring in order to cause defenses to collapse, allowing their shooters time to get a clean look. For all of their efforts, they were unable to break down a well-drilled Pelicans defense buoyed by the start of the Zion Williamson era.

Boston’s best moments came courtesy of the pick-and-roll, each time involving Daniel Theis operating as either the roll man or the screener. Unfortunately, the Pelicans defense adjusted time and time again, cutting off opportunities in the lane and forcing turnovers with their physical style of play. As the game wore on, the Celtics went to their pick plays less often, instead opting to try and make something happen on the drive.

The Pelicans did a great job of forcing the Celtics to settle for mid-range jumpers and shots from three, which is exactly what you want the Celtics to be shooting when they are out of rhythm. The more the lanes and paint were cut off, the less the ball moved when it made it’s way into the teeth of the defense. Down big by half time, unable to find easy routes to the basket, there weren’t many other options available to them.

There were ways to attack this defense, however. It just required a higher level of activity. When a defense is clogging the interior like New Orleans did, you force their hand by double-stacking screens or running pin-downs for shooters to curl off. This forces defenders to play catch-up on the shooter, which either opens the passing lanes, forces a mismatch or allows the screener to roll down towards the hoop.

They have the speed and athleticism to makes that offensive scheme work. In fact, they excel when curling into open pockets in the mid-range. Kemba and Hayward are both exceptional at getting their shot off from that area of the court, while Brown has shown impressive growth in regard, as well.

This is the perfect example of how the Celtics should look to attack teams like the Pelicans when they are crowding the interior. While this one came at the nail, they can run this play all over the floor and create easy scoring opportunities.

Being unable to break down a stingy defense is worrisome, but there is solace to take in the fact two primary pieces of the rotation were missing here. Tatum’s threat as both a slasher and spot-up shooter would have provided a different element for the defense to worry about, possibly opening up those clogged lanes for Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward to attack more successfully. Meanwhile, Kanter’s ability to garner second chance points would have been invaluable on what was a rough shooting night for the Celtics.

Nevertheless, this goes down in the loss column and attention turns to a tough-yet-important match-up against the Heat tomorrow night. With Tatum listed as doubtful, they will need to be actively working for each other to open up their shooters.