Much has been made of the Celtics’ potential on offense. With all the ball handlers, shooting, versatile bigs, and two young All-Stars on the roster, Boston could pick a number of ways to score the ball. The same can be said for what the team can do defensively, too.
During Brad Stevens tenure as head coach, the Celtics employed drop coverage from their bigs, meaning if perimeter players were picked off by a screen, it was the responsibility of the defensive big man to contain dribble penetration from the ball handler while his teammate recovered back into defensive position. Ideally, the offense would settle for a low percentage mid-range jumper. That system had the Celtics consistently ranked in the top-10 in defensive rating every season.
That’s changed under new head coach Ime Udoka.
For now, the team is employing a “switch everything” concept. Simply put, regardless of the offensive action — hard screens, brush screens, slip screens, paint cuts — Boston is switching most actions. The intention is to keep the ball in front of the defense and prevent dribble penetration and help defense. It can look like a matchup zone, if you will.
On Boston’s opening possession, it’s all clicking to start. In the corner, Juancho Hernangomez and Jaylen Brown confirm who’s going where on the screen. Marcus Smart orchestrates the switch from himself to Robert Williams as Jalen Suggs dribbles to the free throw line. The soft zone results in Timelord getting a piece of Suggs’ fifteen footer.
Some points of interest here: 1) Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the lowest men near the baseline. Most offensive geometry will have the wings flanked on either side of the PG-big action in the middle of the court, so it makes sense. That should give Boston’s bullpen of athletic guards and wings space to quickly contest corner threes and help at the rim. 2) With all the switching, this strategy is going to put a big onus on the bigs to get back and help contest at the rim. That's a lot of ground to cover. As rejuvenated as Horford may be and as bouncy as we’ve seen Timelord (when healthy), having them switch on 30-40 picks a night will take its toll.
The success of switching everything relies heavily on communication. The slightest hesitation can be punishing, creating enough space for a driving lane or an open 3 and those are the exact two things you’re trying to prevent. Above, Hernangomez and Tatum hesitate on who’s going high and who’s going low on some action off the ball. They both motion for the other to cover the cutting Franz Wagner and leave Gary Harris at the elbow 3. These are simple decisions; let’s chalk it up to it being just the first week of training camp.
It can get more complicated than that, too. With multiple screeners and multiple ball handlers, Boston will have to switch everything instinctually. Here’s Orlando setting up a double screen with Wendell Carter Jr. rolling and Moritz Wagner popping behind the arc. Josh Richardson does the right thing checking Carter Jr. and Horford should switch to Anthony. Unfortunately, Schroder gets sucked into Carter Jr.’s hard dive and leaves Wagner wide open. Three-pointers from a career 31.5% shooter might be something Boston is willing to give up in the grand scheme of things, but if the Celtics are serious about contending this season, it’s mistakes like this that they’ll want to cut out in October rather than make in May.
More miscommunication here. The Magic run a three-man weave near half court. It’s a lot of parquet to cover, but nothing Boston should be afraid of if they’re all on the same page. It’s Schroder again taking a bad angle on the dribble hand off, allowing R.J. Hampton an open lane for a layup.
We can lament the usually solid Schroder for the mental lapse, but the play does highlight some of the concerns over a switch everything defense. Should the biggest defender and rim protector play so much and so far above the break? If help is expected off the baseline, does that leave the defense susceptible to corner 3’s? If Udoka chooses to play small more often, would the team be better served agressively playing up and pressuring into the ball rather than hanging back? After Wednesday’s practice, Udoka admitted that “we overemphasized switching” against the Magic, so that could be tapered back a bit in the future. Still, it will be Boston’s “major scheme.”
For Brown, so much of this is about accountability and it starts with him and the de facto defensive captain of the team, Smart. “I definitely demand more of myself on the defensive side of the basketball,” Brown said even though Boston held Orlando to 40% shooting and forced 15 turnovers. ”I demand more of Smart even though he’s All-Defensive. Be more of a leader. Talk more, set the tone every game, and we’ll follow his lead.”
It could have simply been a call to arms between the team’s best defenders and veteran voices in the locker room, but what’s clear is regardless of scheme, defense is a mindset and takes a buy-in from everybody, particularly at the top.