At the end of the day, it really is a make-or-miss league.
What sounds overly simplified has many layers of nuance. Each layer that gets peeled back comes a structural decision for how the shot came to be and what a defense is willing to give up. As the Celtics look to regain their advantage in an even series, they have to be looking at what tactical choices that dictate which jumpers their foes take.
Thus far, Brad Stevens has been undeterred by Toronto’s bigs getting crisp pick-and-pop looks. Celtics wings in help position have stayed home instead of rushing to the top of the key, where most of the pops wind up.
The theory here is sound: if they were going to lose, it was going to be because Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka beat them from deep, not because they gave up extra-pass shots to guys like Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. The Raptors are at their best when the ball has energy, and not rotating to the pop effectively kills said energy while dictating where the shot comes from. Sagging off those bigs clogs the lane with another help defender or shot blocker who helps force the Raptors to become a jump shooting team and beat them from the outside.
But the practice has been far from ideal. Ibaka is 10-19 from deep in this series, including 4-4 in their Game 4 triumph. While Gasol remains unable to hit anything, the scorching hot Ibaka brings reason for reconsideration of this strategy.
Most of Ibaka’s damage comes when Robert Williams is in the game. Williams, a bit more of a block-chaser than Daniel Theis, licks his chops a tad when he sees a drive from one of the Raptors’ smaller guards, carrying them a step lower than he must. As he is slower to react to those pops, Ibaka has a ton of time to catch, get set, and fire.
Credit Nick Nurse for the off-ball movement here that keeps the floor balanced and keeps Celtics defenders far away from helping if they wanted to. But Stevens has clearly instructed his bigs to live with the shot and only close out once the ball is settled.
This is a shot the Raptors can get whenever they want it. Boston has been consistent all season long about icing side ball screens, working to prevent the ball from going middle. Lowry or VanVleet just need to bait Williams to them with a couple bounces, then throw to Ibaka atop the key.
“Live by the three, die by the three” isn’t really comforting when your life is on the line. What options do the Celtics have to change things on these pops? And, based on those strategies, are any of them adjustments worth making?
The first thought would be to tinker with their actual ball screen coverage. Spend less time icing or forcing to the sideline and more time throwing different looks at the Raptors guards. More traps, more on-ball pressure, occasional switches... something to keep them on their toes.
Frankly, this isn’t a good idea for the C’s. They don’t have a center capable of being really versatile here, and their entire base defense is built around not allowing middle on side ball screens. Boston’s been a top-five defensive unit all season and are doing a solid job on Toronto’s best threats; don’t overhaul everything just because of Ibaka.
The second thought is to bring in more weak-side help and run what’s called an X-out from the next-closest defender. It would look something like this:
Gasol is too good of a passer in these situations, and Ibaka is no slouch in that department either. Natural mismatches that develop and the energy the ball gains from starting a chain reaction of extra passes is what Stevens looks to avoid. Is letting Lowry shoot uncontested really the answer to cooling their backup 5? There may be no great way to accomplish both rotating to Ibaka and discouraging ball movement around the horn.
There is a third option, and it’s one that two weeks ago I would have thought crazy and never considered. That option: start Rob Williams.
Just two-and-a-half minutes into the game on Saturday, Williams subbed in for Theis and matched up with Gasol. With Gasol colder than an Arctic Ocean skinny-dip, Stevens could opt to flip around his rotation at the 5 to put Theis, better with closeouts, onto Ibaka. The Celtics have shrunk their bench minutes anyway, so it’s not like moving around Theis means he spends less time on the floor with the core, where he’s at his best.
We saw Stevens embrace shifts in other ways during Game 4. Grant Williams came in when Gasol was in foul trouble, a more appropriate matchup for Ibaka than Timelord due to his mobility and his spry closeouts. If Stevens really is concerned about matching up Timelord with Ibaka, one of two things must happen: Theis to the second unit or more minutes for Grant.
The trade off comes with where Grant, a 6’7 guy then playing the 5, struggles on the glass. Timelord and Theis have been far more impactful on offense, too. That trade off may not be a net positive for the Celtics.
None of these options are risk-free, which circles us back to the original question: is any of this worth the hassle?
Ibaka taking these shots is exactly what the Celtics want. He’s bound to cool off at some point, and if he’s going to take more jumpers, it’ll help prevent Pascal Siakam from finding a rhythm. Ibaka and Gasol are 10-30 combined from deep, so despite Serge’s recent surge, it’s not quite time to sound the alarm.
Don’t panic, Celtics fans. Giving up these pick-and-pop jumpers is all part of the plan.