Few teams, and even fewer coaches, can claim to have the number of Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
The Indiana Pacers and Nate McMillan might be able to lay to claim to such an accomplishment. Those Pacers have foiled Boston on three-straight occasions dating back to last season. The latest chapter in their series, a 102-101 home victory on Saturday night, was a thrilling neck-and-neck battle down the stretch. Both squads saw their top players make winning plays, and a few key plays in crunch time served as winning ingredients for the Pacers.
So what went into those final minutes and the few plays that made the difference? For those answers, we have to dive into the film – and not just the game tape from Saturday. We'll examine three different sets and areas where the Celtics offense and end-game counters were either successful, provided missed opportunities, or foiled by great preparation on the part of the Pacers.
The Alley PnR
Over the last few seasons most teams' standard pick-and-roll (PnR) coverage has been the "drop" coverage, where the big guy guarding the screener drops off the screen to protect the lane. These occurrences are for teams that don't switch ball screens (like Golden State or Houston) or when the screen occurs between two defenders that are not at the same position. Drop coverage serves two purposes for most defenses: it encourages a mid-range jumper and allows the post player to avoid running from the perimeter back to the lane after the screen. Rim protectors stay closer to the rim and don't cede a half-step to their counterparts.
The Pacers have, since Nate McMillan took over, stayed with a more traditional hard-hedge approach, where the man guarding the screener lunges towards the ball handler in an effort to steer him away from the lane. Such an approach is more aggressive, but has been less popular as the league gets away from playing two traditional post players. In the past, hard-hedging was effective because there was another bigger defender already at or near the lane to help tag the roller. The revolution of the stretch-4 has outdated the coverage to a certain extent.
Nevertheless, the Pacers continue to hard hedge with their personnel. Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young both move well laterally and use their length, while Domantas Sabonis receives a solid A for effort. The coverage has brought the Pacers success; last season they were in the top-ten in points per possession given up against the pick-and-roll, and were fourth in the league forcing an 18.5 percent turnover rate, according to Synergy Sports.
Brad Stevens dialed up the plays to attack the Pacers within their more aggressive pick-and-roll strategies. Specifically the Celtics relied on a steady dosage of Alley ball screens, which are set leading the ball handler towards the sideline, and popping the big man to the top of the key. The Celtics run a consistent dose of their offense out of this alignment, typically popping Horford to the top of the key for a wide-open three or to serve as a playmaker as the ball swings to the weak side:
Horford didn't play in the second meeting between the two teams from the last year, but provided an efficient and effective boost against Indiana in the other three games of the season: 15 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game while going 7-of-10 from three. The Celtics started to figure out how that weapon would disarm the high help that Myles Turner gives on the pick-and-roll, and Horford got easy looks as a result:
At the end of the 3rd quarter on Saturday night, Stevens started to dial up this play call more frequently. It started as a way to get them a high-quality look as time was running out, this time for Marcus Morris as the screener:
The shot from Morris has a high degree of difficulty - something the Pacers want to force late in the clock. However, the coverage shown by Indiana prompted Stevens to dial up this set frequently in crunch time.
Once the Celtics got their two best pick-and-roll players into the game for the final six minutes of the 4th quarter, Stevens wasn't shy about calling for these Alley ball screens. Well-scouted and prepared, the Pacers did a nice job taking away the catch-and-shoot for Horford. Domantas Sabonis, not known for his quickness or first step, was positionally sound and forced the ball to keep moving.
One thing the Celtics are great at, though: keeping the ball moving once they create an advantage for themselves. Horford zips it around the perimeter and trusts his guards will make the right reads with the ball. Here they get Marcus Smart a wide open layup attempt:
Even though Smart misses, the process behind getting the attempt is laudable. The aim is to scramble the defense and make them react to where the ball goes - that starts from Horford making quick decisions once he catches the ball on the top of the key.
Indiana's weak-side defense was lazy and inattentive as well. Horford missed the cutting Morris behind the back of the defense which would have given Boston an easy two. Incredibly, Boston missed him again on the same play and same slip to the rim:
Down by one with under two minutes to go, Boston went back to the Alley ball screen once again. This time they emptied out the ball-side corner, giving Kyrie Irving the ball and allowing him to drag Sabonis farther away from Horford on his pop. Pay attention to the great rhythm and the hostage dribble Kyrie utilizes to trap Sabonis into staying between the ball and the rim.
The result of the play? A poor close-out and a quick Horford attack to draw the foul:
McMillan began to adjust the coverage here, as Sabonis was dropped closer to the lane than the traditionally aggressive scheme he employs. By being less aggressive, Sabonis found himself held hostage by Irving. Quickly the Pacers went back to their default and pressed up on the Alley ball screen, were it to occur again.
Spoiler alert: it happened two possessions later for Boston:
With Sabonis more aggressive, Irving perfectly toys with him using a ball fake to Horford. By dragging his dribble towards the sideline, Sabonis has to step towards him and a step farther away from Horford. He and Darren Collison get caught trying to switch back to their matchups. As soon as Sabonis leaves, Irving fakes a pass to Horford to get Collison in the air. That gives Kyrie enough space to launch his jumper to give Boston a four-point lead.
Oladipo Foils the Side Ball screen
The reason teams run this pick-and-pop to the top of the key is because the weak side defense is routinely too low to help on the pop. Spain Pick-and-Rolls, run frequently in the NBA over the last year, provides the same theory: help towards the top of the key and it's an easy pass to an open corner three.
Boston went back to this set so frequently because the side ball screen sets weren't providing great results. A lot of that comes from some great adjustments made on the fly by Victor Oladipo, one of the league's brightest and most talented defenders.
Here's the first side ball screen set that Boston runs in the fourth quarter, a pick-and-pop leading Marcus Morris to the sideline. Morris was torching the Pacers and posted a team-high 23 points. The hope was that his pop would suck Oladipo in by a half step towards the corner. At the same time, Oladipo's man would dart off a down screen and receive the ball as it moves away from Morris.
The first time the Celtics ran this set, they got Horford a wide open look at the rim:
Because Oladipo took one stunt towards the Morris pop to the corner, Myles Turner saw himself as needing to help on the Kyrie Irving drive. That forced Oladipo into a poor angle closing out to Smart, and Turner too low to help on the step-up ball screen.
Literally the next play Boston went back to the same set. This time Oladipo wasn't phased by the corner pop of Morris, and this time baited Marcus Smart - the worst shooter on the floor - into taking a jumper. Most importantly, he was able to identify that he should help on the drive from Irving and not Turner:
In close games, small wrinkles like this are important to gain an advantage. Targeting Smart serves a larger purpose as well. If he's a proven liability on offense, there's a greater chance the Celtics pull him out of the game, freeing up Oladipo from constant harassment by their best perimeter defender.
The Winning Sets & Oladipo's Brilliance
Boston had a great look at a game-winning basket drawn up by Brad Stevens. They got Kyrie on a backdoor cut from a unique angle, and the look was completely there for Irving. He simply missed the layup against contact, and that miss ended the game for Boston by putting them up two possessions with under fifteen seconds to go.
Here's the set drawn up by Stevens:
This set had me absolutely drooling. DROOLING. The timing appeared a bit off from the beginning. On the flip to Marcus Morris, it looked like Horford needed to be on the opposite block, waiting for a cross screen from Kyrie. It didn't matter, as Brown was able to enter to Horford in the post. Once there, Irving went to set a back screen opposite for Jaylen Brown. Cory Joseph, on the floor trying to jam Kyrie before he got to the screen, got caught wrestling with Irving and was an easy backdoor target. Credit Joseph with an amazing recovery and as good of a challenge at the rim as you'll find.
The creativity of this look from Stevens is outstanding. What's more incredible is how this is a logical counter off a set Boston has run already this year, and actually went to earlier in the fourth quarter. Check out the similarities between their layup play for Kyrie and this set they ran after a Pacers made basket:
With the exception of where Tatum catches the ball and where Jaylen Brown starts, this is the exact same set. The Celtics were looking for a quick layup for Jaylen Brown, or to get the floor spread afterwards for an Irving drive. It's a similar set to the "Cyclone" action the Golden State Warriors have pounded to death over the last couple of years, one they've had great success with.
Game winning sets are always well-scouted. For a coach in the huddle, the easiest adjustment to make is to draw up something that is a counter or a wrinkle within one of their common sets. Doing so allows the Celtics players to understand their timing, spacing and positioning on the court, and also lulling the defense into a sense of security where they think they know what is coming. To that second point: this is why Cory Joseph was hugging Irving on the high side heading into the action.
After the missed layup, Oladipo went to the other end and banged in a three, flexing on an entire city and needing some anti-freeze for the ice in his veins. That gave the Pacers a 102-101 lead, and put the white board back in Stevens' hand to draw up what would (hopefully) be their game winner:
Followers of Stevens' X's and O's acumen will recognize this concept, as will Philadelphia 76ers fans who were carved up by the same type of set last season. Stevens loves to throw lobs to the opposite block in sideline inbound situations, clearing out the back side and counting on a defender to position themselves between their man and the ball. When defenders wrestle to front the post, it opens up great opportunities to chuck up a lob and see what happens. Stevens has plenty of sets that leverage this concept. He beat the Sixers in the playoffs last year by bating Joel Embiid into fronting Horford, use the inbound to the opposite block to set up a three-point shot weak-side, and slip someone to the opposite block instead of running off a screen. Stevens has all the tricks in the world up his sleeve.
How did the Pacers end up foiling the play? A little more brilliance from Oladipo not to engage Tatum too much in the post and to get through a borderline illegal screen set by Kyrie Irving.
The in-game chess match between opposing coaches is one layer of basketball that shows up when the games are on the line. Jumping straight to an individual end of game set can leave out the context clues (or as I like to call them "cookie crumbs") left by each coach for how they get into their actions. Some, like Stevens, are adept at disguising every set in different ways and fooling the defense in one way or another. Then there are individual players like Victor Oladipo who are mentally prepared and physically capable of foiling any of these plans.
Indiana made great plays on the offensive end throughout the game. They countered the full arsenal of ball screen defenses the Celtics threw at them, were able to target Kyrie Irving on a few crunch time possessions and saw Oladipo make some heroic shots down the stretched. Boston made their fair share of defensive adjustments as well: they scouted the Pacers popular end-game play of a slip-and-pop ball screen for a shooter and took it away before it could happen by forcing Darren Collison away from the action.
At the end of the day, the chess match is only part of the equation. Coaches cannot go out there and execute for the players, nor can the players control every aspect of what happens on the court. The summation of all these factors late in games is pure poetry in motion though, and that is what makes this such a beautiful, exciting game. Saturday night was that poetry coming to life.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).