In a series that pits two of the best defensive teams in the league against one another, the biggest tactical adjustments in Game 1 came out of a need to create offense. The Celtics in particular departed from their normal style play in two ways.
The first and most obvious was Doc River’s willingness to go small with Paul Pierce at the four in order to both match up with Philadelphia and speed up the game.
However the biggest difference was Boston’s focus on the offseason glass. After watching the Bulls pound Philly on the boards for six games, Rivers and his staff perhaps thought they could squeeze out a few precious points by doing the same. This is quite the departure from the norm, as Boston has neglected the offensive glass to the point of setting a historically low offensive rebound rate during the regular season.
However, in Game 1, Boston appeared to commit 2-2.5 players to the boards on nearly every possession. Their nine offensive rebounds was a slight uptick from their regular season Offensive Rebounding Percentage and perhaps gave them a few second chances opportunities they may not have enjoyed otherwise. The flip side to this commitment to the glass is fairly obvious: it made it much easier for Philadelphia to get out in transition. This zero-sum game is why I’d expect Boston (aside from the occasional Rajon Rondo kamikaze efforts) to revert back to its old habits the rest of the series and focus on corralling the Sixers into the half court.
In an odd twist, nearly every big man in this series is better at popping into space than diving to rim off ball screens. Philadelphia generates quite a bit of offense from Elton Brand, Lavoy Allen and Spencer Hawes flaring out for a short jumper after screening and Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass are two of the best in the league on this action. With these accurate big men, the onus on the hedging defender is really to recover back to them rather than stringing out the ball handler.
This quirk has inspired both the Sixers and Celtics to use defensive coverages that can allow ball handlers to attack the middle of the floor. In short, middle penetration is bad for a variety of reasons, so teams rarely elect to use a defensive tactic that opens up the possibility of the ball getting into the paint. So it can’t be understated how rare this dynamic is given that these very teams (and most in the NBA) built their respective defensive success on strongside pressure concepts like “downing” nearly every side pick-and-roll.
Iguodala in the pick-and-roll
I mention this not because it’s a fun wrinkle for tactical nerds and basketball junkies to keep an eye on, but because it opens up a window for the Sixers to win this series. Andre Iguodala is precisely the combination of athletic finisher and playmaker that can wreck havoc when given the opportunity to attack the middle of the floor.
However, when Iguodala shares the court with Evan Turner, he is normally relegated to spot up duty while Turner operates out of the pick-and-roll. This isn’t because Turner is a better pick-and-roll ball handler — far from it — but because Iguodala is also serviceable when spacing the floor and Turner, well, isn’t. This awkward dynamic is a byproduct of Philly’s desire to pair the versatile defensive stalwarts on the other end of the floor.
But if the Sixers really want a shot to win this series, Doug Collins has to unleash Iguodala, even if that means playing Turner far less. Going for long stretches with a lineup of Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams supporting Iggy in the backcourt would create the space needed for Philly’s unheralded star to carve up Boston’s defense with a pick-and-pop pairing of his choosing.
Given that Boston starts both Rondo and Avery Bradley, going small does no harm to Philly’s defensive plans until Ray Allen checks into the game. Even then, Holiday has both the size and ability to chase Allen through screens well enough for Iguodala to turn it into a net positive at the other end. In this series, Philly will need every net positive they can find in order to grind out a place to the conference finals.