BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla’s goal as Celtics interim head coach has been to maintain much of his predecessor’s game plan to keep his players comfortable. That’s allowed for a manageable and eager transition from the controversy of recent weeks back to basketball.
The Ime Udoka suspension isn’t the only difficulty looming over the early portion of Boston’s season though, as Robert Williams III’s left knee surgery exposed an already thinning front court. Danilo Gallinari, a backup front court option, tore his ACL over the summer and Luke Kornet, who had practiced with the first team this week, sprained his ankle. The influx of injuries, in part, inspired the team to sign Blake Griffin after the first week of practices, where Mazzulla needed to simplify what was a complex, yet effective, switching scheme last year.
“Based off the last two days, we’ve been in touch,” Mfiondu Kabengele told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog in a one-on-one interview on Wednesday. “So the bigs have been in drop, maybe some defensive drills we’ve switched just to practice it. As it pertains to going live and switching, only when Joe or when the coaching staff set up a lineup where it’s the switching lineup. That’s where they kind of do it. So far, we haven’t done a lot of switching for myself personally, but it’s definitely been practiced.”
That switching lineup likely revolves around Boston’s more versatile bigs, Al Horford and Grant Williams. The personnel off the bench isn’t well suited to play Ime Udoka’s more aggressive scheme. Kornet, at 7-2, is probably an exclusively drop big man while Kabengele, playing on a two-way deal, may not have enough experience to fully acclimate to that system. He stands a chance. Griffin, at 33 and losing mobility by the day, probably does not.
Mazzulla emphasized this group will need to find its own identity on the defensive end with Williams III absent and called it a great opportunity for the others in the room. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will play more four than they did last year. Horford prepared his body over the offseason to play every day, while the big men have focused on defensive coverages and screen setting.
“Being a better rebounder and being a better screener as well,” Grant said at media day. “I think some of our biggest issues last year stemmed from not creating separation, not creating that extra opportunity, and being a great roller, being a great presence.”
Celtics teammates have been impressed early with Kabengele’s energy and physicality in practice, at 6-10, 250 pounds following a Summer League where he blocked 2.2 shots per game. He’s the nephew of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, and brings some pick-and-pop prowess shooting 40% from deep in Vegas. Defensively, his biggest challenge in that setting became getting shot over and protecting the rim consistently, though his pick-and-roll coverage showed promise.
Utilizing Kornet as a starter seemed to be a way to keep Boston’s double big starter unit and the bench intact as it will function when Williams III returns. Kabengele could potentially do the same in Kornet’s absence, especially in the preseason, but will probably force Mazzulla to abandon some of Udoka’s most aggressive defensive principles, at least temporarily.
“The biggest thing I noticed is just the pace and smoothness,” Kabengele said. “I’m super excited to get down and push the pace, up the energy, and I see there’s fluidity with them and how they move, maybe because they have a good sense of the offense, but that’s the biggest thing I took from Grant and Luke. They’re very poised, especially in pick-and-roll coverages, through traffic, so the overall poise they have on the floor with the ball and off the ball is very impressive to me.”
Assuming Mazzulla is going to divert some of his defensive schemes towards a system that better suits the bigs in his rotation, asking them to play ‘up to touch’ or as Kabengele called it ‘in touch,’ which could be a ‘best of both worlds situation, as it would allow Boston’s defense to continue pressuring the perimeter while also removing their big men from situations where they’re forced into unfavorable switches.
Luckily, Boston’s big man rotation has some experience operating in this kind of defensive coverage, as, at times, they utilized it throughout the playoffs last season, most notably when playing against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
When a defense is playing ‘up to touch,’ it means that the screen defender (usually the defensive big) is playing at or just below the level of the screen - so that they can touch the screener if they extend their arms. By running this type of coverage, a defense gives themselves numerous options to attack an offense.
With the big so high up the floor, they can jump out onto the ball-handler to quickly trap, hedge, switch, or show — or, they can drop in front of the roll man to take away the entry pass to a rolling big. For the defending guard, having their big playing higher into the screen means they can be more aggressive in attacking the ball-handler, with them trying to force a dribble away from the action and/or towards the sideline, which can act as an extra defender.
In the above clip, you can see how an ‘up to touch’ defense can force an offense to work hard for a scoring opportunity. It begins with Al Horford playing touch on Otto Porter Jr, and Smart guarding Stephen Curry. Horford works to cancel the screen as best as possible, while staying just below the level of Porter Jr, allowing Smart to force Curry away from the center of the court, leading to the superstar guard getting the rock out of his hand — Smart then denies the hand-off that Curry was looking for in a ‘get’ action with Draymond Green.
On the weak side, Porter Jr. has flowed into a veer screen for Klay Thompson, but Horford has remained in a shallow drop (where he’s below the screener, but still around the elbows) while Robert Williams has pinched into the strong side elbow.
With Jayson Tatum as the weakside low man, you have size, length, and athleticism to rotate over should a ball-handler penetrate into the paint, thus making a scoring opportunity incredibly difficult to come across.
However, to successfully run an ‘up to touch’ defensive scheme, you need to have a high-iq big making the decisions of when to drop, cut angles, hedge, switch, etc - and that’s where guys like Horford and Grant Williams come into play.
“Al is like, especially with him, he’s so cool and so calm and very welcoming. For a guy who’s well established, I guess you can say there might be an ego, he went to the Finals, all star, all these kind of things, but the level of humbleness and poise around him, it’s been great,” Kabengele said. “I’ll ask him stuff about coverages, foot work. One thing specifically is I would ask him my foot placement when I’m in the gap. Should I have my lead foot up or my lead foot down and expose my chest? Al kind of told me the best thing for me to do is to open up your chest so you can kind of see ball and see the man and kind of create a little angle on both sides, so those kind of tips and tricks definitely help me as a big.”
Another aspect of playing ‘up to touch’ is being able to play passing lanes, and take advantage of the angles the offense gives to you. If you watch the above clip, you will see Horford trusts Robert Williams to deal with Jonathan Kuminga’s roll to the rim, allowing him to focus on removing the passing lane Jordan Poole has available. Sure, Horford ends up kicking the ball, but by angling his body, and switching into space, there is far less open floor for the Warriors to attack on the strong side.
Luckily, Kabengele also has some experience in playing this type of coverage, as he showed during his Summer League appearances with the Celtics in Las Vegas.
However, it’s worth noting that Kabengele consistently opted to drop after the screen took place — but he did a fantastic job of splitting his man and getting in front of both the roller and ball-handler to protect the rim. Hopefully, by being around Horford and Williams, we will see Kabengele begin to diversify his coverages out of this scheme throughout the season, especially if it leads to him developing his ability to defend smaller players on the perimeter.
As a final note: playing ‘up to touch’ doesn’t mean a shift away from a defense that’s predicated on switching. You can still switch 1-through-4 with the 5 playing up-to-touch on screeners, and it’s still possible for the big to switch after the screen if it makes sense in the moment. But, with some of the Celtics' more prominent 5’s currently on the injury report, mixing in a fluid coverage makes perfect sense, especially if you’re looking to limit how often your less-experienced centers are put into a position to defend some of the best ball handlers the world has to offer.