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How the Celtics shut down Utah’s three-point shooting

With high pressure defense and excellent coordination, the Celtics are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.

Boston Celtics vs Utah Jazz Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The Boston Celtics hype train keeps rolling after another impressive win, this time against the Utah Jazz. When facing the best offensive team in the NBA, Boston’s defense stood strong and took away Utah’s most potent weapon — the three-point shot. According to NBA Stats, the Jazz are 7th in three-point percentage and 2nd in three-point shots made, which tells us one thing; they like to jack up shots whenever possible.

No wonder the Celtics came into the game looking to force Utah off the perimeter and were willing to live with looks in the mid-range and at the rim. Heck, most boxers would have loved to fight Mike Tyson if he had one arm tied behind his back for the entire bout. And that’s essentially what the Celtics set out to do, take away the power punch and fight through the flurry of jabs.

Utah ended last night's game with 36 three-point attempts, 19 of which were contested. It’s worth remembering that you don’t always need to contest a shot in order to alter its trajectory. A hard closeout from behind, or the side, will alter how quickly the shooter releases the ball, as would a stunt from a player hovering around the free-throw line extended. So, let’s look at the Jazz’s three-point shot profile a little closer.

Jazz Shot Profile vs Celtics

Defended Attempts Makes Conversion
Defended Attempts Makes Conversion
Tightly contested (defender 2 to 4 feet away) 7 0 0.0%
Open (defender 4 to 6feet away) 16 3 18.8%
Wide Open (defender 6 or more feet away) 13 5 38.5%
Jazz Shot Profile vs Celtics stats.nba.com

Those numbers are pretty much what you would expect because you don’t become the most efficient offense in the NBA by taking tightly contested shots every game. But, the Celtics like to pressure the ball early and often, and as noted above, pressure can act as a sixth defender, if applied correctly.

However, it wasn’t just how Boston defended Utah’s threes; it’s how they discouraged the team from taking them. Sending early doubles at ball-handlers, aggressively hedging pick-and-rolls, and pressuring the ball-handler off the perimeter. That’s why the Jazz couldn’t settle into their early-offense sets, or shoot as quickly as they would have liked.

In the below table, we can see how the Jazz’s three-point attempts have been distributed over the shot clock, and compare that to how they faired against Boston:

Utah Average three-point attempts by time

Timing Attempts Conversion Attempts Vs Boston Conversion vs Boston
Timing Attempts Conversion Attempts Vs Boston Conversion vs Boston
Very early in the shot clock (between 18 and 22 seconds remaining) 5.7 38.0% 5 20.0%
Early in the shot clock (between 15 and 18 seconds remaining) 7.5 39.9% 6 0.0%
Average shot range (between 7 and 15 seconds remaining) 18.8 36.8% 15 26.7%
Late in the shot clock (between 4 and 7 seconds remaining) 4 37.4% 5 40.0%
Very late in the shot clock (4 or less remaining) 4.4 24.5% 4 0.0%
Utah Average three-point attempts by time stats.nba.com

From Utah’s perspective, when facing the best defense in the league, logic would dictate that you try and get your shots in transition, or off early-offensive sets because it doesn’t give your opponent time to set up shop. But, to be fair to the Jazz, it’s hard to get your transition offense going when your opponent is hitting 59.5% of their shots, and holding their own on the glass.

The numbers also tell us that Utah wasn’t able to take their normal amount of threes, and had to settle for more looks from the two-point range instead. Let’s take a look at some film to see how the Celtics managed to disrupt the Jazz’s offense so effectively.

The above play was an early indicator of how the Celtics were looking to pressure the Jazz. The possession begins with a pick-and-roll, which Boston nullifies, then a drive, which again is taken away, before an open-three for the Jazz later in the shot clock, which is a high-pressure shot to take.

You can live with late-clock threes, especially if the offense has had to work hard to create the opportunity. Because, if your trust in the defensive plan, you know more often than not, that final shot isn’t going to be there, or will be wildly contested.

Even late in the game, with a big lead in the bag, and the game looking increasingly lop-sided, the Celtics didn’t let their pressure ease up. On the above possession, the Jazz begin by faking a dribble hand-off, and then getting downhill to pressure the rim. Al Horford stuffs the shot, causing the Jazz to look for a second-side action, which they find in Jordan Clarkson on the weakside corner. Jaylen Brown quickly recovers to his man, contests the jumper, and it’s another miss for Utah.

When defending in transition, as Celtics.com’s Taylor Snow noted in the above tweet, Boston was relentless in their pressure of the ball and ensured there was little opportunity to hit pitch passes or flow into a set.

When the Celtics are shutting down the league's best offense, and are doing so with relentless energy and conviction, it’s hard not to begin dreaming of a deep playoff run. It’s also hard to say “sterner tests are ahead” because what test is sterner than a Jazz team that’s been burying opposing defenses all year?