This article is a facsimile of its original publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Postseason basketball is insanely physical. While the referees swallow their whistles and allow more contact, aggressors become rewarded and the weak fade away.
Nowhere was that more evident than the second half of Game 1 between the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. A brutish and low-scoring contest, the game was decided in the third quarter, when the Celtics held their adversaries to a mere eight points.
Sure, the Pacers were also ice cold and missed the open looks that they got, but this was not an example of a game where a team simply missed a ton of shots. There were not many uncontested looks, and the Celtics deserve a great deal of credit for how they came out and defended.
Most importantly, it's about time. Boston has been looking for any kind of inspired play like this seemingly all season.
Maybe they got it just in time.
From a sheer length and athleticism standpoint, the Celtics have wings that bother opponents. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are huge, and with Marcus Smart out for the series, Brown starting at the 2 is a massive defensive luxury. Gordon Hayward is equally lanky on the perimeter. Those guys can create matchup problems as defenders.
Tatum set the tone for the second half on the Celtics first defensive position. He stayed attached to Wesley Matthews on a screen and forced Matthews to catch the rock closer to the logo than to the three-point line. Tatum could then sag off Matthews, use his length and anticipate the numerous passes to the elbows that the Pacers throw:
This kind of effort got contagious after a lackadaisical first quarter and a half. Suddenly, Kyrie Irving and seemingly every Celtics defender was flying around and scrapping for everything.
Yet, it was Brown as the clear defensive MVP of the series opener. He drew the top assignment against the Pacers' best scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic. Unlike other elite scoring guards, Bogdanovic is reliant on screens and handoffs to get him momentum—he's not an isolation or ball screen-heavy scorer.
Clearly, the Celtics wanted to make his life difficult by preventing him from shooting off those actions.
Watch how Brown chases Bogdanovic off an elbow pull-up, engulfing him with active hands and effort. When the Pacers don't score from a set play, the result is almost always low-percentage shot:
Given the up-and-down nature of Brown's regular season, it must be encouraging inside the Celtics locker room to see him key the Boston comeback. Any successful team defense needs elite individual defenders, and Brown has the makings of a high-caliber strangler.
Beyond Brown, the Celtics team defense was frighteningly good in that second-half, supporting Brown as he ricocheted around big bodies like a Rey Mysterio wanna-be. The amount of pressure the Celtics finally applied on the perimeter limited attacks at the rim. By playing bigs Al Horford and Aron Baynes together—who are incredibly sound team defenders—the Celtics' rotations were constantly on point.
Keep an eye on how they shadow Bogdanovic during his drives, not allowing him to get to the rim, and working with Brown to switch and switch-back onto the matchups that make the most sense:
Again, the Celtics force the Pacers out of their play and into freelance territory, an area where they have struggled. Horford and Baynes are indispensable team defenders, and so long as the Pacers play two bigs together and let both roam free around the rim, Brown and the other perimeter defenders have license to apply as much pressure as possible.
Speaking of Horford, he might be the smartest defender in the Eastern Conference.
As I've written about recently, the Pacers are a team with many different sets and actions that lead to similar results: screens or handoffs for Bogdanovic coming to his right. He's routinely stationed in the left corner, waiting to dart to the middle of the floor and receive a screen or get the ball off a handoff coming to his strong hand. Coach Nate McMillan has a few counters in the playbook, but this is Indy's meat and potatoes.
Horford has obviously read his scouting report and is well-prepared for Bogdanovic. Notice how he anticipates Domantas Sabonis dribbling towards Bogdanovic and knows a handoff is coming. Horford jumps on Sabonis' left shoulder once he picks up his dribble, not allowing a clean handoff to take place.
Now Bogdanovic has to come off the handoff wide, allowing enough room for Brown to sneak in the gap and create a turnover:
Subtle movements like this from Horford are winning plays that never show up in the stat sheet. Sabonis is a lefty and lacks the clean counters in his game to spin back to his right as Horford over-plays the handoff.
There were still times when the Pacers' elbow handoffs were successfully executed and Bogdanovic got a clear path to the middle. But Horford is a playoff veteran and knows he cannot allow the opponent's best scorer to get a clean look in the middle of the floor, so he switched onto Bogdanovic out of necessity. That left Jaylen to guard Sabonis, creating a mismatch that the Pacers could work to exploit.
The Celtics were prepared for this, too.
As soon as Indy identified the switch and tried to throw the ball into Sabonis, Boston's second big was willing to perform a "scram" switch—or an off-ball switch to neutralize a post isolation mismatch. Marcus Morris was ready to jump on Sabonis, and he instructed Brown to vacate the post so the Celtics could get the matchups that are best for them.
This is what team defense is all about:
Beautifully executed, and the double-team on Sabonis while Brown boxed out Myles Turner was the cherry on top. By this point, half-way through the third quarter, the Celtics were on a 13-1 run and had not allowed a field goal. Every rotation was executed perfectly, and every player did their role within the defensive gameplan.
The biggest part of executing said gameplan is differentiating between personnel.
The same play can be run for two different players, and elite defensive teams will recognize that they should defend the play differently as a result.
Case in point: those redundant dribble handoffs. If Bogdanovic comes off the handoff, certainly the Celtics want to pressure him and contest any shots he takes. Tyreke Evans, shooting only 32.6 percent from three since the All-Star break, is not a similar threat. Instead of going over those screens and giving Evans a lane to the hoop, the Celtics went underneath and dared Evans to fire away.
Below is just great execution from Jayson Tatum to recognize the action and get the desired result for Boston. When the overall defense is suffocating, players start to feel like they won't get a better look than one that is mildly open, and they begin to settle. After scoring five points in nine minutes, this is absolutely a settle:
Evans was not the only Pacer to take those ill-advised shots when momentum was against them. (Nor was he even the most egregious violator.)
Four minutes into the half and they still hadn't scored, Myles Turner took a dribble pull-up from 18 feet. How can this be what the Pacers need?
Turner struggled mightily in the opener. He took only six shots, never finding the role that made him a threat against the Celts during the regular season. They were content letting Turner shoot, but he couldn't make them pay.
Look for Turner to be a little more of an offensive focus in the rest of the series as Indy searches for a second scorer.
The Celtics scored only 84 points on Sunday, a season-low. If there is one silver lining for the Pacers to hang their hats on, it's that the Celtics couldn't get anything going offensively either. That's something they've struggled with all year as well.
This series will continue to be physical and filled with intriguing tactical adjustments. Nate McMillan's team certainly has to match Boston's physicality and defensive presence if they want to derail a talented Celtics team.
But that team may have finally found something to hang its collective hat on. And not a moment too soon.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).