During the 2020 NBA season, the third quarter was the Voldemort to the Boston Celtics’ Hogwarts, the Shredder to their Ninja Turtles. No matter how the flow of the game was unfolding, the third quarter always haunted the Celtics, with no clear reason why.
Since that season concluded, the Celtics have overcome their third-quarter demons, for the most part at least. But, on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, that enemy came to pay another visit, and like so many times before, it almost cost the Celtics the game.
Boston held a 15-point lead to begin the third quarter, having played an exceptional 24 minutes of basketball leading up to the halftime break. However, some abject offense coupled with some porous defensive decisions, allowed the Lakers to claw their way back into the game with a 32-23 quarter that saw Anthony Davis drop sixteen points.
“I think turnovers. They were switching a lot, and they kind of took away some of our off-ball actions, and we got a little bit stagnant there. And then, we settled for some tough shots. We turned it over,” Brown said when discussing how the Celtics mistakes fueled the Lakers’ comeback.
When listening to Brown’s comments during his post-game press conference, he mentioned the Lakers taking away some of the Celtics' off-ball actions, so let’s take a look at some of the ways the Lakers looked to disrupt Boston’s offense, and how the Celtics countered those coverages — both good and bad.
If we start with the above possession, we can see that the Celtics are looking to run something out of their ‘quick’ series, most likely to get Jaylen Brown the ball around the top of the perimeter. However, Dennis Schroder does a fantastic job of staying connected to Brown in belly-up defensive coverage, limiting his ability to come off of Blake Griffin’s off-ball screen and, thus, blowing up Boston’s action.
As a counter, Brown fights through Schroder’s denial and flows into a stagger screen to give Derrick White room to curl around the screeners and attack the space behind the perimeter defense, resulting in a mid-range shot.
In fairness, Boston does like to use a ‘quick stagger’ from time to time, but considering how well Brown had been playing against the Lakers, I would hazard a guess that their first option would have been to give Brown the rock in an area where he could straight-line drive towards the bucket.
Boston likes to run ‘ram actions’ to force switches on the perimeter and give the ball handler a favorable matchup. However, in the above possession, Patrick Beverley stays glued to Jayson Tatum from the jump, fighting over the down screen from Griffin before staying in Tatum’s rear-view as he sprints towards a backscreen on LeBron James — with the hope of forcing the switch to ease the pressure on Marcus Smart around the wing.
The play ends up being a ‘ram ghost’ with Tatum momentarily setting a back screen on LeBron before ‘ghosting’ out to the wing without making contact. The idea behind a ghost screen is that it can cause confusion between two defenders who are operating in a ‘switch everything’ system. Without contact, a switch shouldn’t occur. Beverley reads this action incredibly well and sticks with Tatum all the way onto the perimeter, despite Smart doing his best to run LeBron into the trailing defender.
Still, Tatum was on his game, so Beverley’s presence doesn’t do enough to impact the shot from dropping.
Here is the final possession I’m going to look at. I’ve chosen this one due to how well the Lakers played defense on both the strong side and the weak side, which cause Boston’s offense to stutter across the board.
We start off with Tatum and Russell Westbrook going to battle along the sideline, with Westbrook doing his best to stay all up in Tatum’s grill. As Tatum works closer towards the corner, Malcolm Brogdon looks to relocate by cutting baseline, but Austin Reaves decides that rather than following his man, the best course of action is to trap Tatum, using the sideline and baseline as additional defenders.
On the other side of the floor, we have Luke Kornet setting what seems to be a hammer screen for Marcus Smart, most likely in anticipation of the ball being skipped across the court for an open three.
The ball does eventually find Smart, but it’s too late, as the advantage created by Kornet’s screen has gone, and Tatum choosing to give up the rock was somewhat of a Hail Mary with the limited room he left on his side of the court.
Throughout the above three clips, there is one common theme: the Celtics were running a singular action on each possession. At their best, Boston has been utilizing decoy actions on the weak side of the floor or as entities for the ball handler to attack space behind the defense. Joe Mazzulla has the Celtics stringing actions together, looking for ways to bend a defense until it breaks or to create gaps for cutters and/or shooters to sneak into and occupy.
However, you can’t always play at your optimum level; the NBA comes too fast and too furious for you to be elite every night, regardless of what the talking heads might say. Furthermore, when teams are looking to blow up their actions as the Lakers did during their comeback, all you can do is nod your head, give them a smile, and come right back at them on the next play, and the Celtics did that.
Still, I will be happy when seeing the Celtics get back to their free-flowing offense with multiple decoy actions and counters throughout a night, especially if it comes hand-in-hand with four complete quarters.
Who knows, maybe the Orlando Magic’s current hot streak will spark a revival in Mazzulla-ball. We can only hope.