Game 3 might have been a horrendous half of basketball, but if the second half comeback taught us anything, it’s that the Miami Heat are susceptible to being exposed on switches. For all the talk of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, and P.J. Tucker as defensive menaces, the Heat have multiple weak links in their rotation.
That’s why it came as no surprise when the Boston Celtics began hunting out weaker defenders every time Miami’s defense got set in the half court. Suddenly, Boston’s offense looked unstoppable. We’ve seen this type of relentlessness from the Celtics before when Ime Udoka implemented a similar strategy in Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
At this juncture of the postseason, defensive switching is ubiquitous when guarding screening actions, regardless of if a team has their big playing drop defense. Guards and wings battle to stay in front of the ball handler because every remaining team is littered with offensive juggernauts that can ignite with the slightest sliver of daylight.
To create a mismatch, you’ve first got to get a subpar defender guarding the screener, or at least, a defender who will struggle once the switch occurs. Boston likes to do this using inverted screens - where a smaller player, usually a guard, screens for a bigger player, and that’s usually Jayson Tatum.
Ideally, the screener is being guarded by an opposing guard, preferably not one who is known for their defensive prowess. So, as the switch occurs, the bigger player, often a ball-handling wing, has a size and strength advantage from the jump.
The above set has been annotated courtesy of Instat’s tracking software and is illustrated to show how easily Boston manipulated the Heat to get a favorable match-up on offense. As shown in the clip, Derrick White operates as the inverted screener in this instance, removing P.J. Tucker as the point-of-attack defender and allowing Tatum to work Gabe Vincent over while also reducing the physical resistance level Tucker would have provided.
As expected, Tatum beats Vincent off the dribble and seals him on his hip. Miami over-reacts to Tatum’s penetration and collapses on him to protect the rim, leaving multiple shooters open on the perimeter. Unfortunately, nobody got the memo, because Payton Pritchard is that guy and drains the wide-open three because, as he would say, ‘that’s what I do.’
“Just being aggressive, they’re crowding some of our guys on the perimeter, and sometimes you just have to break the play and get downhill,” Udoka told reporters when asked about Tatum’s willingness to attack the rim in Game 4.
Here’s another example, except this time, Tatum recognizes the potential for a mismatch and orchestrates the set. Once Jaylen Brown finds Tatum with the pass, Horford begins to come over for a screen, but the St. Louis native waives off the big man and calls for Derrick White, who brings Duncan Robinson along for the ride.
From that point on, Robinson is at a disadvantage as Tatum begins to rummage through his bag of dribble moves and shoulder feints. Unfortunately, the play doesn’t amount to points on the board, but from a schematic standpoint, it unfolded just how Boston wanted.
These types of screening actions are commonplace within the NBA. While they’re not groundbreaking discoveries, it instantly puts the defense at a disadvantage, and that only gets worse if they try to rotate over to scram the smaller defender out of the action. Of course, inverted screens aren’t the only way to generate mismatches; in fact, there are multiple ways to get the job done, but sometimes simplicity is the best, and nothing’s more simple than the age-old pick-and-roll.
This clip is a solid example of simply using a standard pick-and-roll to force a switch to create a mismatch. Tatum screens for White, offloading Tucker as a result and catching a stray Caleb Martin in the process. Again, nothing comes of the possession, but it illustrates Boston’s commitment to the strategy and Miami’s inability to stop them from getting their way on the offensive end.
“We knew how important this game was, and everybody had to come out with a different sense of urgency on both ends of the floor,” Jayson Tatum told reporters following the game.
The above clips are just a few of the possessions in which the Celtics looked for their preferred matchup on offense, and of course, there are plenty more examples that can be found when re-watching the game. But, outside of Boston forcing a ton of transition opportunities due to their stern defense, mismatches were part of their bread-and-butter offense and should be heading into Game 5.