Nothing spurs on the Boston Celtics like being the underdog. Jaylen Brown’s absence has lowered the Celtics’ perceived ceiling for the upcoming playoffs while fans and analysts alike were declaring the team would succumb to a resurgent Washington Wizards team. Despite all the outside noise, the Celtics scaled the mountain in front of them with relative ease. Boston will now face a playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets as their “reward.”
Fittingly, large quantities of praise will befall Jayson Tatum for yet another 50-point night and rightly so. Surely Kemba Walker will be a topic of conversation after his scoring exploits, too. However, another aspect of this game deserves credit: the Celtics’ defensive job on Russell Westbrook.
It’s no secret that Boston’s transition and perimeter defense have been porous this season. It’s also no secret that Westbrook has been on a tear throughout the latter part of the season. Yet, the Celtics came into this contest with a game plan to limit Westbrook’s impact and influence on proceedings, which they executed flawlessly.
The Wizards have found recent success off the back of a high tempo offense that puts teams on the back foot from when a rebound is gathered, or an inbounds pass occurs. Westbrook is at the heart of that upbeat offense, utilizing a blend of pitch passes and malicious drives both aimed at exploiting defenses before they have time to set.
Boston’s first port of call was to limit Westbrook’s passing options during transition; they pressured the passing lanes, knowing that you can’t get an assist if the pass is pilfered or the recipient encounters stifling defense the moment they receive the ball. Limit Westbrook’s assists, and you negate one of his most vital attributes.
When we discuss pressuring passing lanes, our initial thoughts go straight to deflections and steals. However, it’s rare that a team consistently gets their hands on every pass. Instead, we can think about pressuring passing lanes by situating defenders in areas where steals and deflections are possible and where they can recover to the pass recipient at speed.
Let’s use the above play as our example, focusing on Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. Fournier is positioned at the top of the perimeter, with an angle that allows him to close in on whoever receives a pass while also being a point-of-attack defensive presence.
Walker is splitting the difference by guarding both Bradley Beal and Rui Hachimura while the Celtics defense gets back in transition. Westbrook makes a pass from half-court (which Marcus Smart is also pressuring as he tracks back). As Hachimura begins his drive, Walker slides over and forces a pass which Smart then steals to force a Celtics run-out.
Westbrook’s greatest strength is his ability to create transition offense almost singlehandedly, from grabbing a rebound to initiating a run-out with a pitch pass or forcing defensive collapses with his driving ability. As seen in the below tweet, Westbrook leads the league in assists within 5 seconds of grabbing rebounds, making the Celtics game plan of pressuring the passing lanes a key component in negating his offensive impact.
Russell Westbrook leads the league in assisting baskets within 5 seconds after grabbing a rebound. Here are the Top 5 in the league pic.twitter.com/GN3Rbzj5Mz— Sravan (@SravanNBA) May 19, 2021
There are more slices to this containment pie than just the passing lanes though, and some of it goes beyond limiting transition opportunities. But, lets stick with transition for a little while more.
Westbrook can be unpredictable following a rebound, his ability to change pace and throw pinpoint passes make him a wildcard. In the above play, the Celtics decide not to take any chances with the 2017 MVP and immediately trap him off a defensive rebound.
Double-teaming the Wizards guard in this manner isn’t because he’s a threat to make a full-court shot, but rather to allow the remaining defensive players time to get set up, which forces the Wizards into a half-court offense: something which they don’t excel.
Herein lies the Long Beach native’;s most significant flaw: shooting. Westbrook is a blur on the court, and crafty when peeling off screens as a ball handler, but his focus is always on getting to the rim.
As you can see from the above chart, Westbrook’s accuracy outside of four feet is league average at best. The nine-time All-Star is frankly not a great shooter. What do you do when guarding a sub-par scorer in the half-court? You limit their driving opportunities and force them to defer the rock. But what if the player is an exceptional shot creator for others? Then you take away the drive and limit passing lanes by guarding them with size and length or by setting the pitbull on them. In Tuesday’s game, the Celtics did both.
Throughout the contest, the Wizards guard faced a steady diet of Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, and Evan Fournier as he tried to break down a resilient Celtics front line. During Westbrook’s offensive possessions when being guarded by one of the three Celtics, as mentioned earlier, the two-time scoring champion was held to a cumulative 25% shooting and three assists over.
The plan was simple: by limiting Westbrook’s ability to generate early offense, you were taking away the shooters on Washington’s roster and forcing Bradley Beal to beat you with a supporting cast feeding off scraps. Davis Bertans is one of the better sharpshooters in the league, but without Westbrook to drip feed him open looks, his impact waned, as did the increasingly impressive Daniel Gafford.
Despite all the noise surrounding the Wizards’ premier guard pairing and how their style of play was ideally situated to attack the Celtics’ defensive weaknesses, Brad Stevens implemented a scheme that nullified the Wizards’ offensive metronome. Washington went from a perfectly orchestrated symphony to a bunch of b-boys learning how to dance to breakbeat in a matter of minutes. Heck, you know the Celtics did a good job when Ish Smith seemed to be more impactful than Westbrook for large stretches of the game!
From here, Stevens will need to figure out what schemes will have similar levels of success against a much sterner opposition in the Brooklyn Nets, who rely more on their premier half-court scoring than transition basketball. However, we should all take confidence from they way the Celtics limited one of the league’s best point-guards while still operating at an elite level on offense.