Strategies Evolve as C’s Even Series
Conference Finals Locked at 2-2 Heading Back To Miami
BOSTON – After getting dissected by Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett for two straight games, the Miami Heat decided to switch up their defensive philosophy for Game 4. They started trapping Rondo on pick-and-rolls and abandoned fronting Garnett in the post. While the tweaks didn’t slow the Celtics down in their 61-point first half, their trapping seemed to bog down the Celtics’ attack in the second half Sunday night.
It almost cost the Celtics the game, and had Dwyane Wade’s last-second shot connected, this story would be a very different read. The Eastern Conference Finals would be all but over.
But this much holds true: Miami’s physical, trapping defense forced some bad shots and eradicated an 18-point Celtics lead throughout the third and fourth quarters. The C’s still managed to squeak it out – barely! – but a win’s a win, and the Celtics notched a 93-91 overtime Game 4 victory at TD Garden to knot the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.
Considering the hole out from which they dug themselves, the Heat got all they could ask for in overtime: a chance to win on a wide-open look for Wade as time expired. His post-headfake 3-point attempt at the end of OT hit a lot of rim, but no net, and the Celtics survived what would have been another heartbreaking OT loss.
The C’s, as you remember, dropped Game 2 on the road in a high-scoring overtime tilt despite Rondo’s scintillating 44-point clinic in South Beach. Since that Game, Doc Rivers was expecting Miami to tinker with how they defended Rondo. Sagging off and daring him to shoot long jumpers might be a thing of the past. Much like your portfolio, in the playoffs, past performance does not guarantee future results. But for now, trapping Rondo on the pick-and-roll will likely remain en vogue.
“We just wanted to give him different looks, switch up our game plan. We know if we sag off him, he's able to read the floor better, make better plays,” Heat point guard Mario Chalmers said. “If you put more pressure on him, it's harder for him to pick our defense apart.”
The Heat went to that strategy at the end of Game 3, and before Game 4, Rivers said he wasn’t sure if Miami would go back to it. Early into the night, he had his answer. The Heat repeatedly double-teamed Rondo after the pick, preventing him from driving the lane and creating off the dribble.
Overall, Rondo still had an effective night. He took and missed just two outside shots (both 3-pointers), but hit seven of his 12 attempts in the paint and finished with 15 points and 15 assists.
“We're going to continue to have to give him different looks, so he's not always in the same rhythm, just trying to pick us apart and get everybody going,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “That will be the same as we evaluate and we move forward. If we stayed with that steady diet, that's our identity, but if we do that consistently, they'll figure it out.”
Rondo appeared to have it figured out in the first half, even joking to Doris Burke at the end of the half that he was able to carve up Miami’s defense because they were too busy “crying to the officials.” Over the first 24 minutes, the Celtics posted 61 points, and Rondo notched 10 of Boston’s 15 first-half assists as crisp ball movement provided 20 points in the paint, 10 free throws, and seven big 3-pointers.
“Our execution in the first half was flawless. It was as good as maybe we've had, and we got completely away from it. We really did,” Rivers said.
Along those lines, the bombs that were dropping from downtown in the first half just wouldn’t fall over the final two periods. The Celtics converted just 2 of their eight 3-point field goal attempts over the final two stanzas. They were outscored 21-12 in the third quarter, hitting just five field goals. And suddenly it was a game again.
“I thought Miami just got into us. I thought they physically got into our airspace and took us out of everything,” Rivers said. “Listen, give them credit. I thought we ignited them with the way we played the first six minutes in the third quarter, and then their defensive energy took the game over. I thought they were wonderful. They trapped, they were more physical.”
Heightened physicality from both teams resulted in the whistle blowing more often in the second half, and the Celtics ended up with multiple players in foul trouble. Paul Pierce (23 points) fouled out for the second time in the series, but in a shocking turn of events, history was made, and ostensibly, justice was served. LeBron James (29 points) fouled out for the first time in his postseason career.
“It was like chess,” said Ray Allen of the foul-outs. “They took our queen, and we took their queen.”
Speaking of chess moves and counters, the in-game adjustments for the Celtics continued down the stretch, as Boston posted Rondo on the baseline and had KG slip a few picks as they looked for ways to generate inside scoring. Garnett had another monster game with 17 points and 14 rebounds; 14 of his 20 shots came after halftime.
He faced a different scheme in Game 4 after being fronted in the post for most of Game 3. Garnett spent most of his evening backing down Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, as they jettisoned the fronting strategy in favor of more traditional post defense. Given Garnett’s success, who knows what he can expect in Game 5.
“This series is probably as unconventional as any series I've been a part of. And probably as much as I've seen both teams making adjustments game to game, both teams have had to go through a lot of adversity through this series. We're reinventing ourselves daily,” said Spoelstra, who noted as Chalmers did that it was especially important to mix things up against Rondo, hence the trapping in Game 4.
The trapping seemed to bother Rondo at times, but when the game was on the line and Pierce was DQ’d on the bench, he came up big after telling Garnett that they “had to take the game over.” His final floater in the lane followed Garnett’s fifth block of the night, and it was the Celtics’ only field goal in overtime.
“I didn’t want to be too aggressive. I already had four fouls,” Rondo said. “I wanted to get my teammates involved. It’s not a one-man show, not a two-man show. You have five guys on the court that can put the ball in the hole. I didn’t feel like I had to force anything.“
Miami, on the other hand, may be forced to revise their strategy after losing consecutive games. So what will the Heat throw at Rondo and Garnett Tuesday night? We’d ask Spoelstra but he’s won’t show his hand. Anything, including the return of Chris Bosh, is possible. Look for a new wrinkle in Game 5 as the chess match continues.