We’ve all got our opinions on what went wrong for the Boston Celtics through the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. It was a mixture of multiple things, but the Miami Heat’s flamethrower perimeter offense certainly gave them an edge.
Over the past three games, Miami’s three-point conversion rate has leveled out. So, as you would expect, the Heat have begun probing the paint more often, looking for ways to generate scoring opportunities either via kick-outs, drives, or stop-and-pops.
In Game 6 on Saturday night, the Celtics provided an exceptional defensive performance to guard the interior and ensure that easy shots were difficult to come by.
Impressively, we saw the Celtics' commitment to protecting the rim from the opening play of the night. Miami went into a stagger action that saw both screeners slip before making contact, allowing Gabe Vincent to curl toward the top of the perimeter before attacking in a straight-line drive.
Stunts from Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum ensured there was ample pressure on Vincent’s dominant hand while Jaylen Brown stayed glued to his hips to make his presence felt. The result was a rushed layup that had a little too much sauce on it.
It’s here, in the lanes, where the Celtics can wreak havoc on Miami’s interior scorers. Utilizing length, speed, and defensive IQ, Boston can ensure every foray into the paint is a closely contested one, forcing the Heat into resetting their offense or taking an ill-advised shot.
As you can see from the above shot chart, the Heat struggled to impose their will, both around the rim and in the long mid-range area. A significant part of Miami’s struggles come down to Boston’s attention to detail.
Rarely did the Celtics nail-help get drawn away from the play. Boston ensured their weakside defender rotated or stunted when someone was beaten off the dribble and made every effort to ensure there was a body to contest the shot if a Heat player got to the rim.
Take the above play, for example. Tatum does a good job of stepping into the lane to take away Butler’s route to the rim. Marcus Smart sinks into the corner to deter the three-point attempt. Gabe Vincent drives baseline to beat Smart’s coverage but is greeted by Derrick White, who goes straight up to challenge the shot.
Three separate offensive opportunities, all three snuffed out by Boston’s connected defense forcing tough shots and making Miami suffer the consequences. According to NBA Stats, the Celtics contested 33 of Miami’s 60 two-point attempts. Yet in truth, when we include the stunts/digs, the rear-view contests, and the pressure from a rotation defender, the Heat probably found easy looks at the rim on only 5-7 occasions.
“A lot of things weren’t going for us offensively,” Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “Credit to Boston; they jammed us up. At one point, we were in the eighties.”
Oftentimes, a surefire way to attack the Celtics' defense is in transition, yet in what was their third straight do-or-die game, Boston ensured that fast break points would be as difficult to come by as possible.
Sometimes, transition defense is just about wanting it more than the other guy. Other times, it’s about positioning, angles, and timing. When those two things converge, you can limit even the best of interior scorers, which is exactly what White did on the above possession as he sprinted back on defense before angling his body between Butler and the rim.
By taking away the easy ones, you begin to build momentum on the defensive end. One person's hustle becomes contagious, and suddenly, everyone is executing with force and purpose. Of course, it helps when you can rely on your rim protectors to make a difference, either via blocking shots or altering release points.
Notice how Caleb Martin has to deal with Al Horford protecting the rim, a weakside dig from Tatum, and some strong side pressure from Smart (before he veers off to pick up Bam Adebayo.)
The result is another smoked layup, as Horford’s presence and shot-blocking ability ensure that Martin rushes his attempt in the hope of avoiding a swat. Fortunately for Martin, the rock did hit the backboard, but the same can’t be said for Adebayo, who suffered the ignominy of being swatted away at point-blank range by the ever impressive ageless-Al Horford.
While Boston’s interior defense was certainly a difference maker in Game 6, it isn’t their first rearguard performance. Since turning the corner in Game 4, the Celtics have been making their bones on the business end of the floor. As such, we should be encouraged by the current uptick in communication, effort, and execution.
Because when Miami rolls back into Boston on Monday, they’re going to bring everything they’ve got in the bid to stop themselves from going down on the wrong side of the history books. Also, just like Boston has unfinished business, the Heat went out at this exact same point last season, which means the Celtics will need to be locked in for a full 48 minutes if they want to avoid Butler and Adebayo getting their retribution in front of a packed TD Garden.
Still, if the Celtics can keep up their current level of defense, and Tatum can have another Game 7 for the ages, we could be waking up on Tuesday to a whole new world of possibilities. I, for one, am here for it.