Following Boston’s Game 1 victory, I wrote about how the Celtics exploited the Sixers’ drop defense. Throughout Game 2, Philadelphia failed to make the essential adjustments required to contain the Celtics mid-range assassins.
Kemba Walker benefited from the oceans of space created from the Sixers defensive scheme, pulling up off screens with regularity. The All-Star guard went 4-of-5 from extended mid-range, as he utilized his speed to beat his man following a screen.
The Celtics went to the mid-range pull-up early and often. The above clip shows an action known as “screening the screener.” Walker produces the initial off-ball screen for Marcus Smart, allowing him to cut towards Joel Embiid and draw his attention. A Daniel Theis dribble hand-off provides Walker with the ball, as the diminutive guard leads Tobias Harris into the screen, then turns on the jets to get an uncontested look outside of the paint.
When Embiid did opt to play a more traditional form of drop defense, the Celtics would hunt for cutting opportunities in the lane, punishing Embiid’s conditioning and lack of acceleration.
With Enes Kanter drifting from the weak side interior to set a screen for Walker, Embiid takes up the high help line to deter a Walker drive. There’s still plenty of room for the UConn product to pull-up from deep as Shake Milton struggles to match his pace. Missing his three, Walker darts through the defense to grab the offensive rebound and finish at the rim before Embiid (or anyone else on defense) had time to react.
Credit should also go to Kanter for his roll following the screen. By navigating towards the rim following the shot, Kanter forced Embiid to remain engaged on boxing out from the help-line, allowing Walker the space to get to work in the lane.
The game plan was simple, set a screen, have a shooter come off it, and instantly fire with the slightest glimpse of daylight.
It's the same play for Boston every time, just different guys running it. Simple PnR with Boston center screening. Philly big drops. Celtics player takes a pull-up jumper.— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) August 19, 2020
The crazy part is that this happened throughout Game 1 too. No adjustment from Philadelphia at all.
While both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum benefited from this simple, yet effective game-plan, Walker’s speed made him the most efficient option whenever Embiid sank too deep into the paint.
Generally, teams will turn their noses up at opportunities from 14 feet out to the three-point line. However, the 6’1’ guard has been one of the better scorers from this distance all season. Hitting 50% of his shots in the extended mid-range, Walker finds himself in the 84th percentile among guards.
Scoring from within the extended middle, Walker keeps defenses guessing, which has provided him room to pull-up from deep when peeling off a screen all season. The former Charlotte Hornet shows why defenders are continually guessing where he’s going to pull the trigger.
After relentlessly beating their coverage, Embiid has taken up a higher defensive line, which is to counter any roll by Kanter, but also ensures there’s a big body to contend a Kemba pull-up on the interior. So what does the four-time All-Star do? He pulls the trigger from deep instead. Demoralizing.
Executing from deep when coming off a screen isn’t new for the Bronx native. He’s being punishing teams with that play all season. That Philadelphia hasn’t schemed to contain his pick-and-roll game is dumbfounding, yet here we are, watching Walker stalk his prey with cat-like reflexes and an insatiable hunger for buckets.
There’s a reaction for every action. For a player who’s been torching you from the field, that’s to push up on him - leaving driving lanes open as a result. Open driving lanes aren’t exclusively disastrous as long as defenders can rotate in time to close the path. Herein lies the Sixers’ problem: no one on their roster is even close to Walker’s speed.
Borderline unfair. Josh Richardson is the Sixers’ best perimeter defender in Ben Simmons absence, and on the above play, he does everything right, but it’s just not enough. As Walker comes off the Tatum screen, Richardson (who’s already positioned himself to jump under) jumps into the driving lane but is still unable to beat Walker to his spot. A rearview defensive play begins, but Walker’s speed is too much for Richardson to handle, resulting in an easy finger-roll at the rim.
Following the Celtics victory, Walker explained how all this space (both in the mid-range and driving lanes) is rare for him.
“It’s different for me. I haven’t seen that much space in a very long time, to be honest.”
Brett Brown also answered a question about Boston’s easy opportunities in the mid-range following the game, providing his thoughts on how to counter that issue in Game 3.
‘“I think you have to be smart about it. The obvious answer is to bring 7’2’ out of the paint, and bring 7’2’ up, so there’s some level of pressure. The punishment behind it is real, rollers, and scrambles, and so on. I think if you look at how many baskets were scored out of the pick-and-roll as far as threes go, I think Tatum had three, and Kemba had one. They are dangerous in a mid-range game; this is true. And I feel like, in the second half, we did do that (push up) with some success, but it wasn’t enough.”
With Brett Brown seemingly reluctant to alter Embiid’s defensive positioning when defending the pick-heavy Celtics, it’s safe to assume the Celtics will continue finding space in the mid-range tonight. We will quickly learn if Brown was genuine or if he will be altering his team’s defensive drop scheme to limit Kemba Walker et al. from dominating the mid-range as they have in Boston’s first two wins.