The NBA Finals are getting closer. Both the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors will be deep in the lab, looking for ways they can create advantages and exploits their opponent's weak links. Of course, all the film work in the world won’t prepare you for the intensity you’re about to face, but it will begin laying the foundations for how to approach the series.
Games 1 and 2 are usually part of the feeling out process, the metaphorical jabs to test a team's defense and reaction times, before then proceeding to throw some hammer blows to close out the battle. But, jabs can win fights too, just like a series can swing after the first two games, and that’s why the lab work is key because momentum is no joke.
One of the biggest tasks the Celtics will face is how to get Jayson Tatum cooking, specifically against Andrew Wiggins, who is coming hot off the heels of an impressive defensive job on Luka Doncic.
However, as with all things, there are lessons we can learn from watching the film of Wiggins’ defense, and ways in which Tatum and the Celtics could potentially look to exploit the Warriors' perimeter stopper when matching up as a primary defender on the All-NBA Wing.
Testing Wiggins’ Screen Navigation
Throughout his time guarding Doncic, Wiggins was consistently run into screens, and in truth, his ability to navigate them left a lot to be desired. For the most part, the Kansas product found himself getting caught up on screens and losing track of his man, or at least, providing space for them to attack or get their shot off.
According to Instat’s tracking data, 20% of Tatum’s offense comes as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, so Wiggins will have a steady diet of screens with which to deal. But, Boston also likes to run a set known as “Wide” which is an early offensive scheme aimed at getting an off-ball player onto the rock in the middle of the floor - again, this will test Wiggins’ ability to stay connected to Tatum while fighting through contact.
Wide, also known as “Quick,” is designed to have a player on each wing, and a screener springing the off-ball player free around the center of the floor. The above clip shows Tatum as the ball handler, and Robert Williams as the screener and Derrick White as the off-ball wing receiving the screen. Of course, there are times when Tatum is in White’s position, and his defender is forced to either switch, or battle through the screen to take away both the drive and shooting opportunity.
Navigating such contact on the perimeter proved to be Wiggins’ Achillies heel against Doncic, and he often found himself making the wrong decision, or getting tangled up by the contact. Here are two examples of Wiggins’ struggling to navigate perimeter screening actions.
In this first clip, Wiggins has to thank Stephen Curry for his hard hedge onto Doncic. Without it, the Dallas Mavericks star would have been off to the races with the amount of space the initial screen provided. We can see that Wiggins is completely engulfed by the contact and is momentarily taken out of the play. Now, this clip is taken from Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, so the Warriors are well aware of Wiggins’ struggle with Dallas’ screens by this point, hence Curry’s immediate reaction to hedge and recover.
But regardless of the extra time, Curry created for the defense to recover. Against Tatum, that type of space is criminal. Unlike Doncic, Tatum is an extremely willing passer, and also poses more of a threat from the perimeter, so a scramble would have to ensue, creating advantages across the floor for the Celtics, and offering Tatum a buffet upon which he can feast.
The above possession is from Game 1 of the Warriors series against Dallas, where they are still in ‘data collection mode’ and it shows. In fairness, this is a nice play call, as the Mavericks execute an empty side elevator screen that tempts Wiggins into shooting the gap before running him into a brick wall. Stephen Curry is also taken out of the play as he trails one of the screeners, creating a wide-open driving lane for Doncic.
Again, if Tatum is in this situation, he’s either pulling up off the dribble or driving hard before kicking it to an open shooter once the defense rotates over. Either way, it would be advantage Boston, and honestly, I would love to see this play call added to Udoka’s playbook for the upcoming series due to its speed and simplicity on the wing.
Forcing Favorable Switches: Inverted Screening & Ram Sets
Against the Miami Heat, the Celtics did a fantastic job of hunting mismatches and getting their scorers positioned against weaker defenders. The primary way in which the Celtics were so successful in creating mismatches with regularity was by utilizing inverted screens where a smaller player screens for a bigger player, thus creating a favorable defensive switch. In fact, Boston has been successful with their inverted screening game since the second round of the playoffs, where they continually punished the Milwaukee Bucks with similar actions.
Another way the Celtics have been creating mismatches and/or generating space in the mid-range is by utilizing their “Ram Screen” actions, where a player sets a down screen around the low block, and the screen receiver then cuts vertically to set an on-ball screen on the perimeter, again generating favorable switches for the ball-handler.
Of course, there’s nothing stopping a team from putting these two types of actions together to create an “Inverted Ram Screen” - something the Celtics did to great effect in the final two games of their series against the Heat. I’ve annotated the below clip courtesy of Instat, so you can see the benefits of blending inverted screens within a ram series, and how it can quickly create offense or force a mismatch.
Golden State isn’t a poor defensive team, though, and like Boston, they have multiple switchable defenders that can hold their own when guarding on-ball, so the initial task at hand will be pinpointing who to attack, and in what areas of the floor are most susceptible.
My initial thoughts are that Boston will likely target Jordan Poole or Klay Thompson when forcing switches as throughout the post-season, both have been susceptible to being beaten off the dribble when having to fight over screens - because you can never go under when Tatum is the ball-handler.
Of course, there are counters to inverted screening, and during their series against the Mavericks, the Warriors tried to limit the effect of Dallas’ attempts to get Doncic some favorable matchups.
One way of countering an inverted screening set is to remove the screener's defender from the action and have them sink towards the high helpline instead. This helps the defense dictate which side of the floor the ball-handler will attack, and limits their ability to punish a smaller or weaker defender, while still providing enough security on the perimeter, as a defender can quickly scramble to close out on a shooter. Of course, Doncic is a career 33.7% scorer from deep, so it’s less of a risk against him.
Still, the downside to this type of counter is that it can get quite confusing for the on-ball defender, especially in a system that usually switches on contact. Watch Wiggins in the above clip, he goes over the inverted screen, but has his head down, when he looks up, he sees Curry hedging and instantly begins to relocate, only for the play to break down when Curry recovers.
Testing Wiggins’ basketball IQ: Ghost Screens
Another way the Celtics can take a leaf out of Dallas’ book is by testing Wiggins’ defensive IQ, ideally with “Ghost Screens”. A ghost screen is a screen that doesn’t produce contact and then sees the screener pop out to the perimeter, usually the wing. It’s basically a perimeter version of a slip screen but can cause nightmares for defenses that are designed to switch screening actions.
Most NBA defenses are taught to switch on contact, which can lead to some confusion when a ghost screen is set because no contact = no switch. Players are also starting to incorporate a slight tap on a defender's back when executing a ghost screen, which further muddies the waters because then there’s technically been contact but no screen actually occurred.
Take this possession, for example, watch how P.J. Tucker switches onto Smart after the slight ghost screen, giving both him and Tatum a mismatch. If the Celtics decide to run similar plays at Wiggins’ with the aim of switching a scorer onto Poole or a shifty guard like Smart or Payton Pritchard onto Kevon Looney, then they’re going to be a tough team to stop.
Furthermore, ghost screens will apply pressure to a team’s switching principles, and often force a mistake, bending the defense, forcing them into a scramble, and then punishing them for a mistake. It’s here, when probing the perimeter defense’s IQ, that the Celtics can begin to work their magic.
Pressure in the post
Doncic is predominantly a face-up player. Even in the post, he’s going to face up and look to beat you off the dribble or with a bully drive. Tatum is different. His size and passing skills allow him to operate with his back to the basket while still being a significant offensive threat.
One of Wiggins’ primary skills as a defender is his strength and mobility. If he’s in front of you, it’s tough to gain an advantage over him, and his athleticism and strength mean he’s not easily dislodged by dropping a shoulder and looking to muscle your way through. But, against the Mavericks, the Warriors passing lane defense was put to the test, especially out of post situations.
Boston has two of the best passing big men in the NBA, and Tatum is quickly becoming one of the better wing facilitators, too. Now, the Warriors are no slouch in terms of defending passing lanes, having finished the regular season 6th in deflections, but in the playoffs, they’re 12th (a notable drop-off). This makes me think a lot of the Warriors passing lane deterrence comes in transition, rather than when their defense is set, which tracks considering the pace the Warriors like to play at; they’re 5th in the playoffs and 15th in the regular season (injuries play a part here).
Having Tatum post-up Wiggins and operate with his back to the basket will allow off-ball actions to unfold, at which point, the All-NBA wing can begin to hit shooters or slashers with the pass, ideally after the Warriors send a double-team.
Another wrinkle the Celtics could look to add in terms of low post creation would be the addition of some “Grenade DHO’S.” This is essentially a dribble hand-off that starts with the ball-handler on the low block, much like Tatum is in the above clip. The ball-handler drives towards the perimeter to initiate the hand-off action, creating a wide-open driving lane behind them for the hand-off receiver to attack. Boston hasn’t used this type of hand-off action this season, at least not often, so it could be an ace up Ime Udoka’s sleeve.
If you’re looking for an example of what a grenade DHO looks like, here’s one that Boston defended during the first round of the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets.
Wiggins is a solid on-ball defender, but Luka Doncic and the Mavericks have created a blueprint on how to attack him in the halfcourt, and now it’s the Celtics' job to build upon that and look to take advantage.
Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will likely spend time with Wiggins in their face, but if Boston can tweak some of their offensive sets, hunt mismatches, and get the Warriors wing on their hips or trailing the action, they’re going to find scoring opportunities or be in a position to offer some secondary creation.
Of course, we’ve focused solely on a man-to-man coverage, and how to exploit it, and there are going to be countless more battles taking place across the court. However, when it comes to your star player, understanding how to create some additional space or scoring pockets is essential.
Doncic might not be in The NBA Finals, but if Tatum and the Celtics can exploit Wiggins on the defensive end, his loss will not be in vain. Now, let's just hope Golden State doesn’t decide to send Draymond Green as Tatum’s primary defender, because then Doncic’s blueprint goes right out the window.