Throughout the year, the Celtics have flexed their roster’s versatility. Whether it’s their switching defense or throttling between starting small with Derrick White at the 2 or going with two bigs after the return of Robert Williams, Boston has been able to match or counter opposing teams’ lineups.
Without Marcus Smart and Robert Williams to take on the bigger Lakers, head coach Joe Mazzulla inserted Grant Williams into the starting five with White at the point. It was a move presumably made to initially match LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’ size.
Ideally, this is how the Lakers want to play, with their two best players in an action that forces the defense to make tough decisions or, in this case, a mistake. It’s a simple pick-and-roll with the ball in LeBron’s hands and AD screaming down the paint with no one in front of him. It certainly helps that Boston’s biggest players on the floor, Tatum and Horford, are above the break.
But instead of trying to match LA pound-for-pound and inch-for-inch, Mazzulla counterpunched and downsized. After halftime, Malcolm Brogdon replaced Williams with the starting five as Davis did too instead of coming off the bench to open the game.
The tactical move gave the Celtics more playmaking punch and shooting on offense and on the defensive end, Boston had to rely on their guards to match up with the Lakers size, Davis in particular.
It’s White here and the strategy is fairly simple: stay between Davis and the rim. White and Horford make the switch and it becomes a contest of opposites: Schroder’s speed vs. Al’s size and White’s positioning against Davis’ 250 pounds and 6’10 frame. White does enough to hold off AD in the post before Horford swoops in and gets the block in the free safety role that made Robert Williams an All-Defense 2nd Teamer last season.
There’s a game of cat-and-mouse at play. Mazzulla could be goading Davis into trying to take advantage of the perceived mismatch. However, despite the overwhelming size advantage, post-ups aren’t exactly an efficient offensive play. To wit, Davis averages 1.03 points per post up (72.4 percentile); as a roll man, that number jumps up to 1.38 (84.8 percentile).
On the ensuing possession, there’s the more stout, stronger Brogdon battling AD in the post and after Horford blocked Davis’ previous attempt, LeBron decides to try his luck against the Celtics big man only to suffer the same fate.
While LeBron’s temper tantrum and the redemption of Jaylen Brown were the headlines coming out of Saturday’s big win for Boston, one storyline that deserves to also be above the fold was Malcolm Brogdon’s defense on Davis. To close the first half, Davis was a +7 with Grant Williams and Al Horford on the floor. However, when his minutes mirrored Brogdon’s, he was a -22.
Obviously, that plus/minus differential isn’t all because of Brogdon, but you can see his fundamentals at play.
Late in the game, the Celtics have seemingly pre-switched with Brogdon already on Davis. Davis slips the screen to keep the smaller Brogdon on him, but the Lakers can’t get him the ball. Note Brogdon’s positioning. He’s a sturdy veteran defender as he sets a low base to eliminate Davis’ height advantage and center of gravity.
“I’m more of a scoring guard. I think I give us that edge,” Brogdon said of his comparisons to teammates Marcus Smart and Derrick White. “But for me, I defend well with size. I defend bigs well. I think that’s going to be my strength with this team, this starting group, so I try to do that to the best of my ability.”
Here’s Brogdon again bodying up Davis on the block. A quick double team from White speeds up AD with the shot clock dwindling down, but there’s Malcolm in the middle of it all, keeping Davis out of the paint and challenging the shot without fouling.
Brogdon covered Davis for just under four minutes and eighteen possessions. AD didn’t score at all on two field goal attempts and also coughed up this late game turnover.
It’s not just Davis either. Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen Brogdon stand tall against Chicago’s Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond and New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas. The trio of centers have scored only four points combined against him.