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Celtics punish the Sixers drop scheme by continually finding success in the mid-range

The further Embiid dropped, oceans of room became available in the mid-range area.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics overcame a stern Philadelphia 76ers team on Monday night, riding hot on the tails of stellar scoring performances from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. On defense, Philadelphia incorporated a deliberate drop scheme with Joel Embiid as the focal point as they looked to limit opportunities around the rim.

Embiid’s positioning on defense ensured the Celtics were only able to score 53.8% of their attempts at the rim. However, as Embiid dropped to protect the paint, the Celtics found space in the mid-range with regularity. That type of shot is analytically out of style in the modern NBA. Teams prefer to get their work done at the rim or beyond the arc. For the Sixers, these were the shots they were willing to live with down the stretch.

Luckily for the Celtics, they have no less than four borderline automatic players from that range. Once the Celtics understood this level of space was available consistently, they began to bend the Sixers defense to their will, and it all began with Kemba Walker.

Walker comes off a double-drag screen, turns the corner, and gets to his spot on the charity stripe elbow. Embiid isn’t dropping too deep, but has cut-off the lane to the basket. That gives Walker an unobstructed line-of-sight for the pull up bucket.

A common issue when running a drop scheme is quicker guards can punish you if they beat their primary defender off the dribble. Walker knows this and utilized his speed to find open looks, while continually attempting to draw contact.

A pin down from Marcus Smart on the weak side corner sets Walker in motion to receive the dribble hand-off from Enes Kanter. Walker continues his run by curling towards the free-throw line, steps back, fakes, pivots, and draws the foul while getting the shot to fall.

It’s important to note how deep Embiid has dropped on this play, conceding Walker oceans of space to get to his spot before putting his man in a blender. Furthermore, Walker’s speed and scoring gravity grip Embiid’s attention long enough for the slipping Kanter to creep in behind him and box out for the offensive rebound.

As the game wore on, the Celtics began to hunt for their opportunities within the wrinkles of Philadelphia’s scheme more fervently. Using their athletic wings as both ball-handlers and screeners to ensure a scoring punch was present on both ends of their pick-and-roll play.

Jaylen Brown operates as the screener, providing Walker with a reliable outlet as the defense collapses on him. Walker rejects the screen to ensure his defender continues to follow his path, then hits the rolling Brown with a nifty bounce pass, leading to another mid-range pull-up. Manipulation in its most elegant form.

Throughout the contest, the Sixers allowed 16 of these long mid-range attempts due to their incredibly deep drop scheme. However, the Celtics also found ways to utilize this space to create driving lanes to the bucket.

One of Boston’s key strengths is its wings’ ability to put the ball on the floor and attack at pace, something that doesn’t bode well for the opposing team when there’s the required space to get downhill.

The swing pass by Brown finds Jayson Tatum on the three-point elbow, with the defense scrambling to get into position to defend the change in play. Embiid remains on the weak side block to counter the threat of Daniel Theis, while Tatum sells a pump fake providing him with an uncontested driving lane. Floater, bucket.

Another way to punish a drop scheme is by kicking the ball back out following a drive or offensive rebound, the latter was present early in the fourth quarter as Kanter found Brown on the outside following Tatum’s missed attempt.

Take note where Tatum took his shot from: the mid-range. Alas, the attempt fails to fall, yet Kanter has positioned himself again to contest the rebound. Once the ball is secured, a kick-out occurs, finding Brown on the outside, without a defender in sight.

With the Sixers missing their best perimeter defender in Ben Simmons for the entirety of this series, it’s not unfathomable to envision them continuing to run this drop scheme as the series wears on. And while the Celtics did an excellent job in manipulating the space allowed by the defense, the Sixers plan still paid dividends by forcing the Celtics to alter their attempts around the rim.

It may only be Game 1, but due to the Celtics switchability and firepower across the floor, it’s a safe bet to assume that the Sixers will continue to give up the mid-range shot. Should they choose to close that area down in Game 2, you can expect to see some room open within the seams and the back door.

In a game where the Celtics ball movement was stagnant compared to what they’ve shown during the seeding games, continuing to allow this level of space may be ill-advised. Coaching adjustments are a beauty of the playoffs, and now we look ahead to Wednesday to see who blinks first.

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