Over the last week at CelticsBlog, we’ve gone over positional advantages, possible x-factors, and the storylines and narratives of what could be the most compelling series in the Eastern Conference. Coaches will certainly make adjustments and then they’ll make adjustments to the adjustments.
But boiled down to the essential crux of the entire series, it comes down to how the Celtics defend Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Boston’s defense sparked their revival in the new year and finished first in efficiency for the entire season, allowing a stingy 106.2 points per 100 possessions. Even without the incomparable Robert Williams flying around, the Celtics are a versatile squad 1 through 7 which makes their heavy switching scheme possible. They’ll be put to the test against two of the most gifted scorers of their generation.
“They have two extremely high-level scorers that have seen everything, seen every coverage and every scheme and still do it at a high level,” head coach Ime Udoka said of KD and Kyrie. “You’ve got to understand they’re going to make tough shots. They’re going to go on runs. More so, it’s continue to do what we’ve done all year. Understanding how we’re going to attack them. The type of shots we want to give up and the amount of work we want to make them have (to do).”
The Nets don’t run a lot of stuff. With shotmakers and ISO engines like Durant and Irving, they really don’t have to. Brooklyn clocked in with a respectable 113.2 offensive rating by the end of their soap opera season, but they’ve been even better with both future Hall of Famers on the court at the same time. Over 523 minutes and 17 games, their shared offensive rating is 122.8. With his length and size, KD can get a shot up against any defender. Kyrie and his bag are an obvious problem. Here’s the conundrum for Boston: with how good those two are, you can’t take much away from the Nets because they don’t exactly aggressively pursue efficient shots.
Unlike most teams in the modern NBA, Brooklyn doesn’t hunt shots at the rim or try and generate open three-pointers. Because of their talented and experienced roster, they’re happy taking tough shots because they can make tough shots. Brooklyn ranks 29th in drives and subsequently 17th in field goal attempts in the restricted area per game. Conversely, they’re third in mid-range jumpers with Durant and Irving taking the lion’s share of those shots from fifteen feet out.
The Celtics won three out of four against the Nets, but only the epic battle back on March 6th featured both of Brooklyn’s superstars on the floor at the same time. Boston won 126-120 on the back of Jayson Tatum’s season-high 54 points with Durant hitting 12-of-21 for 37 and Irving chipping in 19.
Despite the offense on the up and up, Udoka doesn’t want to get in a shoot out with his former team. In that regular season series finale, the Celtics stuck to their guns with their defensive scheme for the most part: switch everything on the perimeter. That usually meant Jayson Tatum initially covering Kevin Durant, Marcus Smart on Kyrie Irving, and Al Horford switching on to them off a screen.
Those are shots that the Celtics have lived with all season. Boston gave up the 2nd most mid-range jumpers (13.4 per game at 38.9%) and the 6th most shots in the paint (18.5 per game at 38.7%). The issue, of course, is that Durant and Irving are two of the best pull up shooters in the game. KD hits a ridiculous 48.8% with Kyrie trailing behind at 44%. What might look like a lack of aggression or settling on Brooklyn’s part could actually be part of their gameplan. As The Action Network’s Matt Moore pointed out, in that March 6th tilt, “the Nets shot 70% efG%, scoring 31 points on 25 possessions when Horford switched.”
Both those shots above were generated by screens from the lumbering Andre Drummond, but against the more athletic Nic Claxton or even another mid-range master in LaMarcus Aldridge, the Celtics will have to keep the roll man in mind.
Obviously, Durant and Irving won’t take all the shots for the Nets. Bruce Brown lead Brooklyn in shot attempts in their play-in game against the Cavaliers and Drummond and Aldridge combined to hit 13-of-17 for 29 points. They weren’t effective on Tuesday night, but Patty Mills and Seth Curry are more than capable shooters on the perimeter, too. Any mistake or miscommunication on the initial action with the ball handler opens up all the check downs for KD and Kyrie to hit.
In order to generate more action, in the second half in that March matchup, head coach Steve Nash involved a third screener above the break as part of another puzzle for the Celtics to solve.
More switching and more action shouldn’t confuse the Celtics after completing an 82-game regular season as the league’s best defense, but just the movement alone plus any fleeting moment of indecision could expose cracks and mismatches.
On the flip side, Udoka and the Celtics did try to speed up Brooklyn in the fourth quarter to mixed results. Late in the game (with Horford possibly a little gassed), Boston opted to throw double teams at Durant in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands and dare the other Nets to beat them.
Claxton gets the dunk, but it’s pretty good rotation here from the Celtics.
Here, not so much. As much attention that Durant and Irving command, Boston needs to trust their system and not get sucked into a potential mano a mano duel and lose the other players on the court.
“It’s a contrast of two things that two teams do extremely well,” Udoka said of Durant and Irving’s abilities to score in isolation vs. the Celtics versatility to use multiple defenders. “With us, we rely on our 1-on-1 defense as our base. We believe in our defenders, not just individually, but as a team...the one thing we feel about our team is we don’t have a lot of guys that you can pick on.”
While the Nets are long in the tooth, their playoff rotation is fairly short in stature with Mills, Curry, Irving, and Dragic 6’3 or below. However, what Brooklyn can kill you with is having Durant and/or Irving go off and a role player or two beat you with their limited skill set.
It’s true that Robert Williams’ absence eliminates a certain flourish and unpredictability to Boston’s defense. He provided that fear factor as he patrolled off ball as a free safety. But the Celtics are built to be big and nasty on D with defenders of size and speed at every position. The purpose of the switching defense is to keep everything in front of them and dare opposing teams to shoot tough shots. That shouldn’t change if Durant and Irving are making them.
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