The Celtics beat a seriously depleted Pacers team and at this point of the season, a win is a win as teams jockey for playoff positioning. However, with just four games left including the final regular season home game on Sunday, Boston must iron out a few details before the postseason, particularly with Robert Williams still set to miss at least the first round.
Indiana came into Boston as one of the better offensive teams over the last fifteen games (116.1 points per 100 possessions). As head coach Ime Udoka noted after the game, they play fast and free with nothing to lose at 25-53.
With dynamic point guard Tyrese Haliburton at the helm (who finished with a ridiculous 30 points on 10-for-11 shooting, making all six 3-pointers) and shooters scattered around the perimeter, he unlocks the fast-paced offense with a familiar play of a Rick Carlisle-engineered system: the high pick-and-roll.
It’s effective against Boston’s switching defense for a number of reasons. If a big does switch out so far away from the basket, it forces a mismatch forty feet away from the basket and eliminates a rim protector from the play. But against the Celtics, Indiana wasn’t exactly trying to create that small-on-big scenario necessarily. Instead, they tried capitalizing on those small spaces when defenders were in the process of either switching or making the decision to switch and attacking those gaps.
Watch how Haliburton negotiates this Goga Bitadze high screen. Bitadze slips it and rolls to the rim, giving Haliburton an option to dump it to him if Horford commits, but there’s more. Haliburton is also probing the strong side defense just in case he can attract a helper. See how Buddy Hield is involved in that cross action with Jayson Tatum just before the Haliburton-Bitadze action? It’s meant to engage Tatum’s attention; Tatum stays home on Hield, but you can see how Haliburton checks down on possible receivers before going into his floater.
Here’s a similar action again. This time, Grant Williams does accept the switch on to the ball handler (Lance Stephenson) with Derrick White checking the rolling Bitadze. Unfortunately, White and Payton Pritchard fail to communicate the second action and Bitadze has an open lane for a dunk.
“Communication-wise, it’s a few games in a row now where we haven’t been as sharp as we need to be with the switching and the communication,” Udoka said after the game. “That was a little more apparent tonight just like last game.”
Later in the game, Williams actually does try to quarterback the defense from the back line, yelling for White to go “WIDE!” on the high pick. Williams can’t switch on to the driving Haliburton because it will lead Isaiah Jackson open on a hard roll to the rim. White doesn’t force him wide enough and Brown doesn’t stunt over enough to eliminate the driving lane.
After the layup, NBC Sports Boston’s Brian Scalabrine notes, “they got to really figure this out.” The Celtics won’t have Timelord when the playoffs start in two weeks and as Marcus Smart suggested, “we did get a little coddled with the fact that Rob was back there to clean up a lot of those mistakes for us.” But even without Williams, Boston knows that their calling card is their defense and if they’re to make any noise in the playoffs, they have to get back to that identity.
“There’s a lot of areas tonight where we could have been better. Do we miss Rob? Of course, but some of the mistakes tonight weren’t because we didn’t have Rob,” Tatum said after the Celtics gave up 17-of-36 shooting from behind the arc to the Pacers. “A lot of the communication on the perimeter, that was our fault. We gotta be better.”