Scheme and game planning can only get you so far. At some point, you need guys to just miss shots in order to get stops.
That’s a tall task against the Brooklyn Nets, who have arguably the three best isolation scorers in the world on their roster. We saw that on full display Saturday, as the Nets erased an early deficit with tough bucket after tough bucket. It was the type of offensive showing that makes you throw up your hands, shake your head, let out a deep sigh and say out loud, “what else can we do?”
Of course, Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics’ coaching staff aren’t helpless. They have tricks up their sleeve and ways to try to force the Nets to play in isolation, where the degree of difficulty in order to beat Boston becomes heightened. Against a normal team, forcing isolations is a sound strategy: switch screens, bait them into playing one-on-one and try to eliminate all the easy stuff around the rim.
Against the Nets, it’s not quite that easy. When Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are on the floor, there’s bound to be one isolation that isn’t in the Celtics’ favor. As we saw in Game 1, the Nets aren’t shy about forcing or exploiting the one that suits them best.
Within the starting lineup, Brooklyn wanted to get to Tristan Thompson early and target the only big on the floor. Whether it was in the half-court off a switch or through a cross-match in transition, Durant was the one to go right at Thompson:
The Nets have three of the greatest scorers on the planet. But give Steve Nash some credit. He lets them have isolation time and attack mismatches without relying on it as the sole means of creation. The Nets offense leverages the scoring of their stars, and the fear of their opponents to switch into a clear mismatch. Nash was on point with his after timeout plays to put the C’s in a lose-lose situation.
The main method of placing Boston in jail defensively was three-man actions that occur quickly. With that many bodies in a small space, it takes snap decisions on the Celtics defenders to analyze whether they switch or don’t switch each piece. Guess wrong or too slowly, and the high-IQ veterans on Brooklyn’s roster will make you pay.
The first ATO of the day was a designed handoff to get Kemba Walker switched onto Durant at the right elbow, one of his favorite areas to isolate.
Not much later at the start of the second quarter, the Nets would take advantage of Boston’s lack of willingness to switch. Jayson Tatum was trying to stick with James Harden, who was inserted into the right offensive corner so he could sprint off traffic into a handoff going to his preferred left hand. But as the Celts tried to avoid switching and Tatum got clipped, they still found themselves disadvantaged due to the speed of the action the Nets ran:
Those three-man actions are tricky. Speed makes switching teams pause, as do slips, like the one above by Nic Claxton. What can make them even harder to defend is when two All-Star scorers are involved.
There can be a reluctance to switch off that caliber of a scorer and let them slip free. Walker and Marcus Smart got caught in that predicament guarding Harden and Irving on Saturday. While Nash designed a great play by putting them together (and placing Durant in the opposite corner so there’d be no rim help against a slip), a botch of communication lead to an open Irving 3-pointer:
Celtics coaches are likely working on cleaning up their communication, aggression and cleanliness through these three-man actions. Breakdowns on whether or not to switch cannot happen, and fighting through tough screens needs to be eliminated.
They also will likely address the many ways the Nets tried to go after Kemba. An effective method of targeting Walker was to use his man, Joe Harris, to set a screen for Kevin Durant in the corner. It would put Walker at a decision: stay too long to help on the screen and risk the switch, or don’t provide that help and give up an open shot in rhythm:
Boston has long been smart with their off-ball switching to help Kemba, something veteran teams can do far easier than young ones. With a few youngsters in the lineup, the patchwork isn’t as clean. Of course, it becomes a moot point if there aren’t better defenders to relieve Walker. The more minutes that go to Jabari Parker and Aaron Nesmith, the less it matters.
There were a few situations very late, with veterans and high-IQ guys on the floor, that the C’s went to their off-ball switches in order to protect Walker. It helped preserve the worst-case scenario of facing the Durant isolations himself:
Again, it’s hard to do this on every possession of the game, especially as lineups change. There are ways the Celtics can thwart dangerous isolations through off-ball switches if they’re engaged and prepared, blowing up the quick-hitting actions and guarding isolation mismatches after they’re created.
Stevens opted for fairly aggressive tactics to stymie those mismatches. In the series opener. Boston actually had some success in throwing two bodies at the Nets’ top scorers in isolation. Durant threw balls away out of panic against unsuspected traps:
Emphasis on the unsuspecting. Double-teaming can’t be done every time or else the Nets will pick it apart through passing and skip the ball around the floor to an open shooter. When that happens, the Celtics are basically just chasing after the ball as multiple future Hall-of-Famers play keep away until finding the right shot.
Boston tried a lot of unique tactics in the fourth quarter. A matchup zone was played at times. They’d put Robert Williams on the weak-side corner so he could constantly be helping at the rim. They started with him guarding Bruce Brown, one of Brooklyn’s few non-shooters, early in the game and sagged far off.
Let’s also not blow things out of proportion. 47.7% of the Nets’ possessions finished with either a post-up or isolation. They were held to 104 points; Brooklyn failed to reach 100 only four times this season. The Celtics forced a lot of tough shots and protected the rim exceedingly well.
The Nets just made those tough shots. That will be the story of the series. Boston’s defensive intensity can be excellent, their schemes changing throughout and their execution strong. It may not matter against a team literally constructed to make demoralizingly tough shots.
We’ll see what else Stevens and the staff have up their sleeves. There are areas to clean up, but all in all a decent defensive start to the series.