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Defending Miami’s stagger action

The Celtics made some adjustments to their defensive coverage.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Erik Spoelstra might be one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the NBA, if not the best. Yet, his roster is severely limited in terms of scoring off the dribble and creating off the bounce, so Miami tends to run actions that get their scorers shooting off the catch or rampaging toward the rim.

Throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat looked to attack Boston’s switching defense by running a strong side stagger screen, with one screener rolling to the rim, the other popping out behind the three-point line, and the ball-handler probing the defense, looking for which option could hurt the Celtics the most.

For the most part, that action torched Boston. Over and over again.

The above possession is from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Starting with a Bam Adebayo ‘veer screen’ — an on-ball screen flowing into an off-ball screen — the Heat setup in their stagger action on the strong side, Max Strus flares to the wing as Lowry curls over both screens, finding shooting space as Jaylen Brown gets caught on the Adebayo screen.

If Brown had gone under or over the Abebayo screen, the Miami big man would have rolled to engage Horford who was in drop coverage and get a dominant post position. That’s why Miami like the action so much, it creates multiple forms of attack.

Say what you want about the Celtics, but you can’t deny that they're not fluid in their adaptability.

“It’s very special. I haven’t played on a team like this, where one through five, everybody that’s on the floor takes pride on the defensive end. It’s a championship characteristic for sure,” Malcolm Brogdon said following the game.

On Friday night, Boston shut down Miami’s stagger series early and often, and it only took some minor adjustments.

Above, Miami set up their stagger action as a decoy to allow their offense to flow and attack mismatches. We can see that Caleb Martin and Kyle Lowry position themselves as the screeners before Martin slips and relocates to the strong side corner, while Dewayne Dedmon lifts to set a screen for Tyler Herro.

Miami gets the outcome they want — Smart switches onto Dedmon, leaving Grant Williams guarding Tyler Herro, their best offensive initiator. However, the Celtics have no weak defensive links in their core rotation, so in truth, there’s no major advantage being created.

The possession ends up with Brown blocking Lowry, which is a byproduct of the Celtics ensuring their switches are timely and don’t give up any sort of mismatch. However, let’s credit the lift out of the corner by Martin, because that removes Horford from being the low man, who can then help off to protect the rim or force a trap.

So, that’s how Boston was nullifying decoy actions, but what about when Miami actually executed their stagger screen?

I have annotated the above play, courtesy of Instat’s tracking software, to help show Boston’s adjustment in guarding these stagger actions. Typically, the Celtics would ‘straight switch’ these screens, opening them up to slip screens, or unforced errors if one of the screeners were to ‘ghost’.

Here, things are executed a little differently. The second screener’s defender (Horford in this instance) is the designated drop defender on this action. Smart and Derrick White switch the initial ball screen, leaving Smart to guard Lowry who is the ‘popper’ and White to guard Jimmy Butler as the ball-handler.

Suddenly, the Celtics have closed up shop. A slip screen is being covered by Horford, the pick-and-pop has been nullified, and the ball handler is being guarded by one of the best point-of-attack defensive guards in the league. Even a second screen for Butler by Adebayo doesn’t create too much of an issue for the Celtics, as Horford is limiting the drive and forcing Butler into a jump shot — which he’s capable of making, but it’s not his ideal shot profile.

Miami scores in this instance, but solid defense doesn’t always equate to a stop, the same way well-executed offensive possession doesn’t result in points on the board every time.

“The further along you get, the easier it is to focus on the bigger picture. I think that at the end of the day, regardless of its Game 6 of the NBA Finals, or the first game of the night, it always comes down to ‘can you execute the fundamentals and execute those details? So, I think if we can keep that as a habit, it can help us out down the stretch,” Joe Mazzulla said during an October 12 media scrum

Every team has its go-to plays and their ‘pet actions’ that usually get them some easy offense. And while the Celtics will still get caught out from time to time, their commitment to the finer details and knowing their opponent's tendencies is only going to help them cement their status as a legitimate championship contender.

After all, a victory over Miami doesn’t come easily.

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