When you thought the Boston Celtics had seen everything the Philadelphia 76ers had to offer, Doc Rivers throws a wrinkle into his offense that ends up having a big impact on the Sixers' ability to create quality looks.
The change was simple. The Sixers just moved their pick-and-roll actions from the top of the perimeter to the slot and wing areas of the court.
The reason these corner pick-and-roll actions are often successful is that they make it harder for the help defense to rotate over. The Sixers decided that running their two-man game on the sides wasn’t enough, so they decided to employ an empty corner strategy.
Take a look at the above clip and notice how the Sixers don’t have a shooter positioned in the strongside corner. The reason for this is two-fold. One, no shooter means no defender, thus creating a clear driving lane for the ball-handler, who, in this instance, is James Harden. Two, any help defense that rotates over on a potential drive, is doing so by leaving someone open that’s just one pass away, creating a defensive rotation that generates mismatches across the board with solid passing angles to multiple outlets.
In this instance, Harden utilizes the screen before Joel Embiid pops into space, allowing an easy pass and open jumper to get the finish.
Here, we see the Sixers go back to their side pick-and-roll actions, with Tyrese Maxey quickly relocating out of the strongside corner after his dribble hand-off exchange with Harden. It’s that relocation that makes this possession tick. As Harden curls over Embiid’s screen and drives downhill, he occupies three defenders — Derrick White in the rearview, Al Horford in the drop, and Marcus Smart digging into Harden’s driving lane.
While all three of Boston’s defenders are trying to stop the former MVP from getting to his spot, none of them are limiting the reigning MVP from getting to his. A quick pass from Harden and suddenly Smart is rotating over to try and contest Embiid’s easy look.
Not all of the Sixers' side pick-and-rolls occurred with Harden and Embiid. In the above clip, we see Georges Niang take up the role of the screener, with the strongside corner once again left empty. From there, Harden has a mismatch on Robert Williams; he goes into isolation, waits for the dig from Malcolm Brogdon, and then shoots the gap to blow up the coverage and get the finish.
Due to the strongside corner being empty, there isn’t an additional body on the low helpline to offer extra resistance via a dig or peel switch, which allows Harden to generate scoring momentum with the risk of having the ball swiped away from the side of him. As such, Jayson Tatum finds himself having to rotate over to the middle of the floor, leaving Maxey open in the corner so that Harden feels some resistance on his foray into the paint. Credit to Derrick White here, too; he sinks off his man on the perimeter and splits the difference between both weakside players to deter the passing lane.
Another aspect of running side pick-and-rolls is that when the defense does a good job of taking away the driving lane, the screener can simply flip their screening angle to create a path to attack toward the middle of the floor. The above play is a solid example of how flipping the screen can force the defense to adjust on the fly and can create scoring space in the center of the floor.
You could make the argument that Brogdon’s assistance in staying with Harden on this play actually hindered the Celtics' defense, as it took Robert Williams away from the shooter and limited his ability to close out onto the shot. Ideally, in this situation, Brogdon would have switched onto the roll man to tag the role, allowing Boston’s best shot blocker to challenge Harden’s mid-range jumper.
Hunting Horford. pic.twitter.com/iNPGWbZx05— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) May 3, 2023
Watching through the game, there were multiple instances where the Sixers’ side screening actions generated solid offense for them and left the Celtics chasing through contact to try and contest shots. Throughout Game 2 and 3, Boston had been doing an exemplary job of nullifying the threat Philadelphia posed in pick-and-roll situations, often looking to ‘ice’ the ball-handler as they came off the screen.
Without the additional defender in the corner, it’s hard to ice an empty-side pick-and-roll without leaving the screener open, either as a cutter or a popper. Fortunately, as the game wore on, the Celtics adjusted their defensive coverage of the Sixers' screening actions, positioning their defenders between the ball-handler and screener — thus denying the action from taking place.
Above, you can see Smart ensuring his body is between Harden and Embiid, which cancels the screen before it takes place and allows Horford to remain ‘below the level’ in a drop coverage position. Once Harden realizes that there’s nowhere to go, he gives up the rock, allowing Horford to step onto the perimeter and guard Embiid in a man-on-man situation. Of course, this is Horford we’re talking about, and he had himself a block party in this game, so as you would expect, Embiid’s shot gets swatted.
As we look ahead to Game 5 tonight, seeing how the Celtics adjust to Philadelphia’s empty side actions will be interesting, as it’s clear that adjustment gave them problems during the opening quarter of the contest. Once Boston figured out how to limit the Sixers' effectiveness on the wings, the flow of the game began to change, and the Celtics found themselves taking over the momentum.
Given Joe Mazzulla’s penchant for game-to-game adjustments, I would be shocked if we saw the Sixers find a similar level of success on Tuesday night, but Rivers certainly stumbled onto something in Game 4, and it played a big part in the Sixers evening up the series.