After Goran Dragic dominated the Celtics in Games 1 and 2 with his penetration and pick-and-roll prowess, Brad Stevens stuck his defensive stopper, Marcus Smart, on him in Game 3, leaving Kemba Walker to guard Jae Crowder or, when he was out there, Tyler Herro. Per NBA.com’s matchup data, in Game 3, Walker spent approximately 30% of his time on both of those two, and the strategy paid off. Dragic was held to just 11 points on 2-10 shooting and the Celtics got the win.
For all his offensive firepower, Walker is severely undersized with a generous 6’0, 184-pound listing and, though he certainly makes a big effort on defense, Kemba is clearly the weak link at that end of the floor. Per Jacob Goldstein’s Winsadded.com, his -1.12 D-PIPM ranks 202nd out of 256 players with over 1,000 minutes played. Jae Crowder promised that there would be some adjustments from the Heat offensively after the Celtics managed to take Game 3. In Game 4, the Heat’s plan to attack Walker, whenever possible, was quite apparent.
Jae Crowder said, yes, there will be changes if the Celtics again defend him with Kemba Walker. Said he just can't give anything away. Said same if Celtics again defend Andre Iguodala with Enes Kanter.— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) September 21, 2020
On the very first offensive possession of the game for Miami, with Walker matched up against Crowder, the Heat ran a simple pick-and-roll to get Kemba switched on to Jimmy Butler. One-on-one, Walker has no chance against Butler, and with no help coming, it’s a simple bucket for Miami as Butler just backs him down and hits a jumper right over the top. Jayson Tatum has his arms out but doesn’t really ever threaten to help.
Take a look at Jaylen Brown and Duncan Robinson on this play, too. Robinson has enjoyed arguably the greatest shooting season by someone not named Stephen Curry, and his gravity plays a big role in creating this bucket for Miami. With the ball on the other side of the court, against just about anyone else, Brown would be able to pinch in and clog some of the passing lanes, but against Robinson, he is up on the shooter’s body, giving his teammates more space to operate in. If Tatum helped on to Jimmy, Brown wouldn’t have left Robinson to rotate on to Crowder, and it would have just led to an open 3 for the Heat.
What really changed between Games 3 and 4 was just how much the Heat went after Walker in those situations. After taking just 5 shots where Walker was the primary defender in Game 3, that number shot up to 13 in Game 4. While the shooting stats on NBA.com’s matchup data can often be a little noisy, that is too big of a difference for it to be happenstance.
Heat rookie Tyler Herro had the biggest game of his young career with 37 points, and a lot of the damage was done against Walker. Herro has the size advantage and is an excellent mover without the ball. In the clip below, Herro gets the ball at the top of the key and starts to drive down the right side of the lane past Walker. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are guarding two non-shooters in Solomon Hill and Andre Iguodala, but are both too pre-occupied with their own men and don’t help Walker out to stop the drive. The Celtics have to be more willing to rotate off some of the Heat’s poorer shooters and help Walker out in situations like this to try and force a 3 from a bad shooter rather than give up a layup.
It was fitting too that while Boston tried to furiously come back in the waning moments of Game 4, the dagger came on another instance where Miami picked on Kemba. This is a low-resistance switch here from the Celtics – with a little more effort they easily could have kept Jayson Tatum on Jimmy Butler, but instead Butler is again backing Walker down.
With under 5 seconds on the shot clock here, there’s some truly inexcusable help defense from the Celtics. Tatum, for one, loses Herro on the wing and fails to pass him off to Smart, but also doesn’t ever look like he’s actually going to come and double Jimmy and force him to make a decision. Instead, he’s in no man’s land as Herro ghosts in for the layup.
That failed coverage wasn’t just on Tatum. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are on two clear non-shooters in Andre Iguodala and Bam Adebayo, and they have to be more aware of that huge gap in the middle of the paint and be willing to rotate over and cover the middle. Instead, both stay on their men, and Herro gets the easy layup to finish off the Celtics.
Unlike the Raptors or Sixers before them, the Heat are taking full advantage of Kemba Walker’s size disadvantage on the defensive end, attacking him whenever they can. His Celtics teammates must do a better job of helping him out if Boston wants to have any chance of completing a miraculous comeback in this series.