Philadelphia vs. Boston: Adjustments for Game 2

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.

Shooting Bigs 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

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NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for ATL-BOS, LAL-DEN

Notes on Tuesday night’s games. For my thoughts on how Chicago should play without Derrick Rose, click here.

Atlanta Hawks (1-0) vs. Boston Celtics (0-1)

The Celtics find themselves perilously close to facing a 2-0 deficit thanks to the suspension of Rajon Rondo and uncertain health of Ray Allen. The big question facing Boston is where they will find offense in the absence of two of their best creators. The answer honest to that question is simple; they won’t. Going into Game 2 the C’s main focus should be on slowing the pace, limiting possessions and doing their best to keep the game in the 70s.

Larry Drew, meanwhile, should be making any minor tweak he can to his scheme and lineups to do the exact opposite. To ensure a two game lead before heading to Boston, Drew must implore his troops to continue playing up-tempo and forcing a short-handed Celtics team to score with them. Jason Collins justified his minutes (and his mixtape) with his traditionally sublime post defense on Kevin Garnett, but Atlanta may want to go smaller with Josh Smith at the 5 in an attempt to make this game as much of a track meet as possible.

When Atlanta is in the halfcourt, they should use far more pick-and-rolls and much less isolation. Boston had quite a bit of difficultly keeping Jeff Teague out of the paint and Smith has been a terror as a dive man on the pick-and-roll. The Hawks should really only seek isolations when Smith has the chance to attack Brandon Bass or Greg Stiemsma in the mid-post.

The offensive explosion the Hawks had in the first half was mostly a mirage produced by Smith and a host of others making long, 2-point jumpers. To compound matters, Drew also seemed content to

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Zach Attacks: Time Expiring

From December 12th to opening night, I’ll be releasing a random essay on each team in the league. This post is about the Boston Celtics. You can follow the series with the “2011-12 Team Previews” and “Zach Attacks” tags at the bottom of the page.

The Mayans, man…

They’re really trying to screw everything up for us.

I have a theory without any scientific evidence to back this up. So naturally, I figured the Internet was the perfect place to unveil it. What if time is actually speeding up because the world is going to end when the Mayans are making it end? Sure, some may say the Mayan calendar isn’t predicting the end of the world and really they’re just showing the end of a certain era. Plus, there isn’t any real evidence to show that time is ever or could ever get faster.

However, I remember when I was a kid everything in the world took forever to happen. Summers would last for an eternity, as we’d go swimming, play basketball, and try to find creative ways to hurt each other. School days never ended as we waiting for the final bell to ring and our fun to start. I never remember anybody discussing just how quickly Christmas had happened upon us, even if I was probably distracted by the Shaq-Fu Schnickens combination or knee deep in Saved By the Bell reruns.
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It’s your fault, you powerless bastard

General sports fans seem to believe that a) Players are mostly to blame for this lockout and b) Owners will get the better end of a deal. I’ll table the racial dimension of this conversation for a different day–I have a rule about publishing on race after the 2 AM sleep deprivation threshold.

It is difficult to look at these numbers and conclude anything other than: “Fans think owners deserve more money than players do.” That would be an odd sentiment, considering owners already have more money, and “owning” is not an action–you only need to hold the deed.

An owner can forget about his team’s existence for ten years and still sell it for a profit. As a Warriors fan, I cite the non-experience that was Chris Cohan ownership. He may well have lived in a bunker that existed in a black hole’s vacuum. Petty lawsuits were the only evidence that Cohan kept breathing air, but for all I know, he filed those from Marianna’s Trench by the grace of gills and a waterproof typewriter. The Owning Thing eventually sold GSW for 450 million. When owners like Mark Cuban immerse themselves in team operations, it is an active choice and not an obligation.

So, how do fans come to favor passive deedholders whom they believe will get the “better end” of a lockout? To explain, I cite Dennis Rodman: “I think the players should bow down. It’s not the players’ fault, it’s the owners’ fault and I think (the players) should give a little bit, and that way, things will move on.”

Rodman did not “blame” the players, but he voiced how many want this to wrap up.

Give in. Things will move on. Bow down.

There is a fatalism to our view of these negotiations, an

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Technique of the Week: Going straight up

Joel Anthony eats a Tyson Chandler forearm to stop a dunk without fouling

Technique of the Week is a HoopSpeak feature that highlights the technical nuances that makes great players special and role players meaningful

Technique: Going Straight Up

Why it’s important:

Being able to lock down the opponent’s top offensive threat is great, but what’s even more valuable these days is a defender who can also stop his teammates’ assignments from scoring near the rim. The NBA players who do that best do so by challenging at the hoop without fouling—by going straight up.

It’s almost impossible to stay in front of the big, ultra athletic wings and guards in the league today. As a result, many teams have developed complex defensive schemes designed to keep as many bodies as possible between the ball and the basket without drawing a defensive three second violation. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on rotating defenders to not only get in position to offer resistance, but then actually affect the shot. The increasing value of that role is why light footed big men with little to offer offensively like Tyson Chandler and Joel Anthony seem to be overpaid but probably aren’t.

This technique is rarer than one might assume. Sure, there are plenty of players who can protect the hoop by hacking anything with a pulse that enters the lane. The JaVale McGees of the league enforce a “no easy buckets” policy that reroutes driving players to the freethrow line, but the reality is that there may be no easier NBA bucket than the points earned at the charity stripe. The name says it all—it’s an efficient and reliable method of scoring that truly great defensive teams, like the San Antonio clubs in the mid 2000s, take

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About that Wade-James pick and roll…

It was a stunningly simply and beautiful play that, as many noted when it happened and in recaps this morning, we imagined we’d see a dozen times a game en route to a Heat championship. A high pick and roll between Dwyane Wade (handling) and LeBron James resulted in Wade hitting James rolling through the paint. With help defense closing in, LeBron made a touch pass to Chris Bosh who was cutting along the baseline and finished above the rim. Against a Celtics defense that was as stalwart as at any point  their 2008 title run, that overtime bucket was as easy as it gets.

So where was that play for the rest of the game? Why do Coach Erik Spoesltra and the Heat continue to employ this reliable and demoralizing play so sparingly?

It should be said that Spoelstra made a number of nice adjustments, notably instructing Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony to shove Garnett off his cuts and front or three-quarter front him in the post, as well as engineering a number of quick ball reversal plays that led to Wade receiving the rock at full stride, curling middle toward the rim. That Garnett struggled to find room inside and the Heat blitzed the rim all game and paraded to the free-throw line down the stretch was no accident.

But at the end of the game, the Heat went away from their presumptive go-to play, repeatedly using Bosh as the screener in the primary pick and roll.

This in itself isn’t a bad idea. Bosh is an underrated screener and presents obvious complications to any defense with his size, speed, skill and ability to shoot accurately from 18 feet. The problem is what Bosh brought with him. No I’m not alluding to the baggage that accompanies a

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What’s gone wrong with Boston’s pick and roll defense?

This Miami-Boston series was supposed to be can’t-miss television; intense, physical, grind-it-out affairs featuring two of the league’s best defensive teams. After two games, it looks as only the Heat’s “D” has shown up and, because of that, the Celtics head back to Boston down 0-2 and searching for answers. The C’s vaunted defensive schemes, kryptonite in past seasons to both Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, have been completely dismantled thus far.

The majority of problems are coming off side pick and rolls featuring either Wade or James and a host of screeners (Illguaskas, Anthony, or Bosh). Over the years, one of the staples of the Celtics’ schemes has been to “Down” ballscreens on this area of the floor:

“Downing” a ball screen on the wing requires the defender (X1) to get up on the ball handler’s top shoulder and push him toward the baseline. The post guarding the screen follows suit by dropping underneath the screener and corralling the ball handler, preventing him from directly attacking the rim. The defense behind the play then pinches in preparation to either jam a roll, or stunt at a popping big man, before recovering to their own assignment. By keeping the ball on one side of the floor and out of the middle of lane, Boston limits their exposure to the two biggest threats facing any defense: ball reversal and middle penetration.

The problem in the Heat series has been that the C’s have been forced to defend side pick and rolls in a more traditional way. Instead of “Downing” them, Boston has been simply hedging hard and recovering:

Here Bosh sets the screen for Wade, who goes middle. The Celtics react by having Garnett hedge hard and Allen trail over the top in the space between the hedger

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Boston Basketball Death

The Celtics are dying. The Spurs are dead. Right now, Andrew Bynum might agree: Never trust anyone over 30.

The Celtics fascinate in a way they couldn’t mere months ago. Back then, they rendered competence rote. Garnett, Pierce, Allen, and Rondo played so beautifully together that it just seemed reflexive, and the novelty of such synchronicity wore off. I took it for granted because subconsciously, I assumed it would last forever. Recent events are to blame. Though Boston was spectacular early in the season, the ancient Spurs were even more impressive. Kobe Bryant’s numbers served as a continued rebuttal to time’s designs on the body. The only drop off in Steve Nash’s game was the occasional pocket pass, dropped off to a dunking Grant Hill.

It seemed back then, that age didn’t exist, due to new training techniques, diets, supplements, possibly even untraceable PEDs. An unknown something was propping up this 90’s generation, at times I wondered if God would descend to let us in on the joke. It felt as though old timers had constructed an impenetrable wall between themselves and emerging talent, with increasing numbers of challengers crashing up against the barrier–in perpetuity. I could imagine a 32 year-old Derrick Rose, shaking his head, stymied once more by the middle-aged Boston Celtics in the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals.

It is often said about aging: “It happens little by little and then all at once.” I tend to view age as an encroaching fog that slowly approaches from all sides–until suddenly, it swallows you up. For Boston, the fog-swallow certainly feels sudden. Or, as Dan LeBatard brilliantly put it: “If what we have seen so far is real, if the Heat is indeed fast-forwarding the aging of the Celtics and putting an expiration date on their time…”

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Comparing the defensive philosophies of the Heat and Celtics

Special thanks to Coach Anthony Macri of HoopsWorld and Pro Training Center for his help on this post!

Everyone knows the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have two of the best defenses in the NBA, giving up respective opponent FG%s of 43.5% and 43.1%. But these squads, who look destined to meet in a potentially epic second round series, achieve their impressive figures through fundamentally different defensive philosophies.

This is, in part, a reflection of two smart defensive schemes that take advantage of their personnel in order to best profit from strengths and mask weaknesses. The Heat’s defensive specialty is the ability of their athletic wings, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, to cause havoc and make up for the mistakes of teammates. The Celtics’s D, on the other hand, is designed to take advantage of Kevin Garnett’s incredible ability to organize and communicate with his teammates.

There are certainly overlaps in execution. Both teams give great effort, communicate well, are focused and energetic, and rely on prescient rotations to lock down opponents. However the are also essential differences between the Heat’s and Celtics’ defenses leads the Heat do whatever they can to pressure the ball, while the Celtics try to pressure the passing lanes through technically precise positioning. The Heat look to disrupt by getting eyeball-to-eyeball pressure and force defenses to read and react in the face of active, swarming limbs. Meanwhile, the Celtics want to prevent ball reversals by angling everything to the baseline and getting hands in passing lanes to stagnate the opposition’s offense.

Here are some of the ways these two philosophies manifest on the court:


Despite an aging roster, the Celtics have created 150 more turnovers and have stolen the ball 111 more times the Heat.** This is in part because in

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Optical Tracking Data and the importance of screening in the Boston Celtics’ offense

Perhaps the star presentation of the 2011 Sloan Sports Analytics conference was Sandy Weil, who two years ago dropped a bomb on the NBA community by proclaiming, with copious data to back him up, that the “hot hand phenomenon” simply does not exist.

If Weil’s 2009 presentation made people reconsider elements of the epic opening round series between Chicago and Boston (take that, Ben Gordon!), his 2011 presentation reminded me immediately of the current Celtics team.

This year, Weil and the people of STATS, LLC brought less conclusive, but maybe more provocative thunder to Boston, with a presentation titled “The Importance of Being Open: What Optical Tracking Data Can Say About NBA Field Goal Shooting.” Weil explained how cameras in the rafters of a few NBA buildings were capturing every movement of every player and producing data about how teams move, pass and score. For a more full explanation of why this technology will change the way we analyze basketball, read this report from Brett Hainline.

Here’s what Hainline pulled as the salient takeaways:

The three primary results of Weil’s poring through the data and accounting for things like historical player shooting percentages, distance, and shot type:

Tight defense (within three feet) drops expected shooting 12 percentage points (a 50 percent shot becomes a 38 percent shot). Field goal percentage drops one percentage point for every 1.5 feet from the rim. There is something beneficial about the catch and shoot, beyond expectations.

It’s that last one that is most fascinating to me: There is now empirical proof that crisp ball movement can result in a better outcome for the offense. Weil’s data shows that even when accounting for the defender’s proximity, the field goal percentage on catch and shoot plays was higher than expected for the distance of the

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