On May 14, the Boston Celtics destroyed the Philadelphia 76ers in their Game 7 contest, thanks in large part to an otherworldly performance from Jayson Tatum. In return for their stunning win, the Celtics have been rewarded with an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Miami Heat.
Considering that Jimmy Butler’s final shot of Game 7 was the difference between who progressed onto the NBA Finals last season, it’s fair to assume a large part of the narrative surrounding this series will fall on his shoulders. However, Butler isn’t the only Heat player to be concerned about. In fact, in recent years, it’s been Bam Adebayo who has made the most impact against the Celtics.
Given how the Heat lacks a true on-ball initiator, in part due to Kyle Lowry’s decline and their lack of other guard options, Miami has stuck with Adebayo generating their offense via dribble hand-offs around the elbow — something Celtics fans are all too used to seeing.
Fortunately, the Celtics have just run a seven-game gauntlet, where dealing with the two-man action between Joel Embiid and James Harden was the primary puzzle that needed solving. So, Boston’s coaching staff likely feels confident about containing one of the Heat’s most prominent offensive actions.
Still, with Game 1 just around the corner, I thought it would be pertinent to look at how Adebayo utilized the elbow area of the floor during Miami’s recent series against the New York Knicks, so we can get a clearer picture of what to expect.
One of the most common ways Miami likes to utilize Adebayo’s offensive versatility is by asking him to operate in the short roll, using pick-and-roll actions to create high-post entry passes. From there, Adebayo can face up, shoot, drive, pass, or initiate a hand-off sequence to generate mismatches for the ball-handler.
In the above play, we see Miami flow into an empty-side pick-and-roll (something the Sixers added into their game plan from Game 3 onwards), creating an open driving lane for Jimmy Butler. After setting the screen, Adebayo rolls to the strong side elbow, where he makes himself available to receive the pass in space created by the amount of attention Butler draws when stampeding toward the rim.
Fortunately, the Celtics have dealt with very similar offensive movement from Embiid in recent weeks, with both he and Adebayo preferring to get their work done around the free-throw line extended.
As you can see in the above clip, the Sixers looked to feed Embiid in similar spots on the floor, especially when asking him to face up and attack the defense. Boston has adjusted to these actions by creating somewhat of a wall comprised of an on-ball defender and two helpers who can dig and recover to their man, thus pressuring the rock and forcing quick decisions/punishing indecisiveness.
Still, Adebayo is not Embiid, and their skill sets have some stark differences. For example, the Heat can also use their star big man as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, running inverted screening actions to force mismatches and allow Adebayo to go to work. Take the above action from Game 5 against the Knicks, where Butler sets a rip screen at the elbow, creating a straight-line driving opportunity, which Adebayo takes advantage of and gets the bucket.
It’s these nuanced pick-and-roll actions that will give the Celtics some cause for concern, especially if they’re unable to rely on Robert Williams as a weakside roamer. which could be the case if Erik Spoelstra utilizes off-ball movements to force switches onto genuine scoring threats.
Of course, the Celtics have some legitimate size, length, and defensive versatility to counteract these actions, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it took the coaching staff a game or so to figure them out completely.
And then we have Adebayo’s staple: elbow hand-off actions. It’s worth noting that rather than looking to set up scoring opportunities, Adebayo uses these hand-offs to act as a pivot point in the Heat’s offense. Nevertheless, there are times when scoring sequences arise, such as the one shown above.
In this set, we see Caleb Martin hit the entry pass before setting a gut screen for Max Strus, allowing him to curl off the screen and receive the handoff. Strus’ shooting gravity pulls Mitchell Robinson away from Adebayo for a short moment, allowing a second entry pass which pulls Josh Hart away from Martin. A quick read and touch pass and Martin is off to the races as he gets downhill and to the rim.
The problem with defending Adebayo in these sequences is that you don’t want to gamble by fronting the post, as he’s capable of turning to attack the space behind him and talented enough to make the right read as the defense rotates over. As such, Boston will likely rely on momentary pressure in a similar way to what they used when Embiid was facing up at the elbow — either that, or they will look to deny the hand-offs from occurring, although that can be a risky ploy.
We should also expect to see the Heat run some decoy actions where they threaten a hand-off via a screen or stagger screen, only to find an open shooter as the defense reacts. We can see a solid example of utilizing a threat to generate an easy look in the play above, as the Heat set up to run a zoom action, but instead of coming over the screen, Strus sets a pin-in, allowing an easy hand-off to Kevin Love for the open three.
The Celtics run similar things themselves, mainly via weakside twirl actions, but the desired result is the same: cause confusion and generate open shooters in position to receive a pass.
It’s worth noting that Miami is not an easy team to read or defend. While feeding Adebayo around the elbo, or finding ways to get him towards those spots are a staple of their offensive principles, they are diverse enough, and Spoelstra is creative enough, to find other ways to punish a defense. However, if Boston can find a way to limit Adebayo’s effectiveness around the elbows, they will go a long way to positioning themselves for success in the Eastern Conference Finals.