In a game where the Boston Celtics went away from a lot of the stuff that provided them success in games 1 & 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, Joe Mazzulla took a leaf out of the Ime Udoka playbook.
During the Celtics' run to the 2022 NBA Finals, Udoka tasked his guards with additional screening responsibilities as he looked to take advantage of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s size and ability to attack off the dribble. On multiple occasions per game, we would see Payton Pritchard, Derrick White, and Marcus Smart screen for a bigger player, with those screens being known as ‘inverted screens.’
On Friday, April 21, as the Celtics battled for their third straight victory, those inverted actions became a core concept of how Boston looked to spring Jayson Tatum free from Atlanta’s defensive plans. Furthermore, those screening actions generated mismatches, thus forcing the Hawks’ defense to rotate or overload one side of the court.
As you can see in the clip above, Smart’s inverted rip screen (back screen) for Tatum generated some confusion for the Hawk’s defense. Saddiq Bey is guarding Tatum, while Trae Young is tasked with handling Smart. Yet, as the inverted screen takes place, Atlanta looks to switch the action, thus forcing Young to pick up Tatum. Bey, however, appears to recognize the conundrum that would put on his team and thus goes under the screen and looks to cut off Tatum’s drive.
The issue for Bey, though, is that Tatum has already entered his shooting motion on the perimeter, forcing a difficult change of pace and direction for the Hawks’ defender while also putting Young in a difficult spot where he needs to contest the shot, but not help off of Smart too much.
One simple screen, a whole world of trouble for two perimeter defenders.
Here, we have another example of the Celtics running an inverted action for Tatum, this type in the form of a wedge screen — a diagonal screen designed to get a player post position. Usually, the wedge screener will come from the painted area, but in this instance, Smart cuts in from the weakside corner, blowing up Atlanta’s coverage and allowing Tatum a free lane to the bucket.
Of course, the Hawks are trying to avoid the switch that would place Young onto Tatum, and thus, De’Andre Hunter fights through the contact and chases the All-Star as he cuts. A swift pass from White finds Tatum in motion, and voila, an easy bucket with virtually no resistance around the cup.
In this final example, we once again see Tatum receive an inverted screen, this time from White. However, in this instance, Tatum is the ball-handler in an inverted pick-and-roll scenario.
Again, the Hawks aren’t switching these screens, so as Hunter gets caught up on the screen, Tatum seals him with his hips before changing gears and attacking the line with a straight-line drive from the wing. You can see the Hawks dig/stunt at Tatum in an attempt to pressure the ball, but given the amount of perimeter scoring at Boston’s disposal, no one commits to picking up the drive, leading to another easy bucket, this time, a dunk.
“Tatum, in particular, is just hard to guard one on one,” Snyder said. “So you have to commit multiple defenders to him, and those other guys are, you know, they’re prepared. They know when those shots are coming. And he’s becoming an excellent passer.”
The result may not have gone Boston’s way, breathing life and belief into the Hawks roster, but it’s clear that Mazzulla found a new wrinkle that could benefit his team’s offense for the remainder of the series. Personally, I would like to see the Celtics run more of their stagger series on the wings, as they found genuine success with those in both of the first games. Yet, the NBA Playoffs are about adjustments and finding new ways to be successful against a defense that you’ve seen multiple times in a short space of time. Oh, and of course, it will also be interesting to see if Brown is also the beneficiary on some of these actions, as we all know how elite he is when getting downhill to pressure the rim.
Now, the question is whether Mazzulla runs more of these inverted actions on Sunday when the Celtics and Hawks face off for game four. However, the most important thing will be securing the victory and heading back to Boston needing just one win to progress onto the second round.