Charles Dickens once said, “vices are sometimes virtues carried to excess.”
As Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra trade tactical barbs in the Eastern Conference Finals, both have to nail the balance between attacking their opponents weaknesses and doing it so much that its pursuit becomes a vice.
Through two games, the Boston Celtics have seen and attacked a few vulnerabilities in the Miami Heat defense, particularly with individual defenders. Miami has done the same. What has brought the Heat an early 2-0 advantage is their ability to combine masking their own deficiencies with not falling into the trap of over-targeting the same spot in their foes.
Thus far, each team has played two players with glaring defensive weaknesses. It’s been a relentless pursuit of exploiting them whenever possible. The series may come down to those few possessions of success or failure to cover up and protect the runts who get picked on most.
Attacking Kemba Walker
At this point in his career, Kemba Walker is no stranger to being the smallest guy on the floor.
In a switching scheme like Boston utilizes, that may expose Kemba to certain one-on-one matchups that aren’t in his favor. Typically, the Celtics will execute a scram switch to protect him from post-ups and situations where he’s guarding seven-footers. Boston’s multitude of long, high-IQ defenders is the perfect blanket to cover him up.
However, Jimmy Butler has been able to prevent this from happening. Butler is great at engaging Kemba on switches with physicality. Miami’s other guards, like Goran Dragic, are savvy with how they set Kemba up for the switch, or how they screen to force one. Butler is great with quick finishes, not allowing doubles to come once he gets the ball. There’s a cognizant effort to get Walker down low and go at him quickly.
Miami has also placed shooters on the weak side, which lengthen the route for helpers and cloud internal instincts for how much to leave their man to protect Kemba:
While Butler’s numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping, little plays like this go a long way in getting easy buckets against the Celtics switching defense. This is far from the only way Miami goes at Kemba. They’ve been going at him in transition knowing that he’ll invite contact to attempt to draw a charge. They try to snake pick-and-rolls with Dragic and run him all over when he guards screeners. Butler has been the most effective going at him, and in crunch time, these scenarios are ones to watch out for.
The question then becomes how do you protect Kemba? Stevens has tried a few tweaks, like putting him on Jae Crowder and not switching, encouraging Miami’s fifth option to become a gunner. I’d like to see a little more of him on Duncan Robinson in that regard, too.
Attacking Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter rose from the dead in Game 2 to play 11 minutes, going 4-4 from the field and being +7 in his floor time. The numbers are aided by some strong work in the first half and exposing Miami’s lack of preparedness for his unexpected playing time.
It didn’t take long for them to figure out what to do.
The Heat put Kanter in continuous ball screens and handoffs, going at him in two-man actions. The man who got open most: Bam Adebayo, the screener who would dive to the hoop and be open for finishes every time:
With Kanter, you know what you’re going to get. He’s strong, finishes 1v1 on the blocks, and is a good offensive rebounder. But Miami is really fast, and their speed is like gasoline onto the embers of where he struggles most. The minutes at the backup 5 have already been a hodgepodge this series, so it will be interesting to see if Kanter did enough in Game 2 to earn himself another go ‘round.
Attacking Duncan Robinson
When you’re a good offensive player but a poor defensive player, there’s an extra reason for teams to target you (see above). Not only do you give away points on one end, but if it gets so bad that you get played off the floor, your team loses what you provide on offense.
While Robinson struggled in Game 1, his shooting performance in Game 2 was high enough that it didn’t really matter if the Celtics went at him in any chance they got, Miami was coming out a net-positive. Rendering Duncan ineffective doesn’t just come through attacking him, but through stopping him as a shooter.
Alas, the Celtics go at him whenever they get a chance. It’s sound strategy to do so. He’s the weakest individual defender going against a team with multiple elite drivers and one-on-one scorers. There are few places for him to hide.
Boston doesn’t really care who Robinson matches up with in transition. They’ll go at him immediately in possessions and see if they can get to the rim. It’s been their most consistent path towards early-clock points:
In the half-court, Stevens uses some traditional tactics to go at Robinson through switches. Get him on a big like Daniel Theis and it becomes an offensive rebounding advantage, with Theis taking him into the paint. They’ll use screens elsewhere to distract the help so they can go at Duncan one-on-one. They’ll put him in ball screens and pick them apart.
These dissections have yielded great results for the C’s:
Robinson’s minutes directly correlate with how hot his hand is. If he struggles, Spoelstra knows leaving him out there is a liability. But if Robinson is hitting, like he was in Game 2, Miami has to adjust and go with more zone looks to keep him on the floor.
Attacking Kelly Olynyk
Spoelstra is no stranger to seeing teams go right at Miami’s backup center. As soon as Kelly Olynyk checks in, the Heat go zone as much as they can to protect him and discourage ball screens, rim attacks, and situations where Kelly has to guard the perimeter.
There’s a vulnerability in that area, though. Whenever the Heat miss on offense, it’s difficult for them to get organized into a zone, and therefore they sprint back and matchup man-to-man. Those opportunities present themselves to the Celtics to attack, particularly for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in isolations:
When Andre Iguodala played alongside Olynyk in Game 1, Stevens saw this as an opportunity to limit the stretch shooting Kelly provides against opposing 5’s. Theis would guard Iguodala and Jaylen would be on Olynyk, allowing Boston to switch Olynyk screens and protect Theis from guarding the perimeter.
Spoelstra responded by limiting Iguodala to seven minutes in Game 2. Only two of those minutes came while Olynyk was on the floor, per NBA.com’s lineup stats.
Targeting weak individuals only gets you so far. In crunch time, the Celtics cannot become a one-on-one jump shooting team. Credit Miami for having the effective zone in their back pocket to protect their guys in a way Boston cannot match or exploit.
Regardless of the zone usage, Miami will continue to play some man-to-man, and have weak defenders on the floor. Boston’s success in climbing out of this hole may come down to how effective they are at winning these disadvantage matchups.