When Boston Took Away Ray's Spot
Writing about a game between the Miami HEAT and the Boston Celtics on the day it was announced that Rajon Rondo is out for the season with a torn ACL is almost beside the point. Whether or not Miami had won in double overtime, nothing would have changed. The HEAT will go on to make the playoffs and contend for a championship while the Celtics are now faced with an identity crisis. This doesn’t preclude Miami’s longtime foes from the north from playing in the postseason themselves, but should the remaining core of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett be kept together, it will be surrounded by a different troupe than most of us are used to.
Fortunately, Sunday’s thrilling, if rough around the edges, contest gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at and celebrate the defense that – along with Chicago, given the Tom Thibodeau connection – has been the league’s best at pushing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh et al. to a new level.
And just as with the Bulls, Boston’s brilliance against Miami rests on its strength in defending corner threes.
What you’re going to see isn’t as extreme as Chicago ignoring an open three on the wing to defend the swing pass to the more efficient corner shot. Rather, this is simply a steadfast adherence to strongside-weakside principles, with the occasional exception made for Ray Allen, and the importance of Kevin Garnett.
We begin in the fourth quarter, but there are examples of the following throughout the contest. As LeBron James brings the ball up the left side of the floor with the weakside overloaded, take a look at the bottom left corner of this image.
While Boston’s three defenders on the right side of the floor each have at least a foot in the paint, Leandro Barbosa is barely giving Allen enough room for a catch as he concedes an acre of real estate for James to drive. The idea here is partially that Jeff Green, who had a strong defensive game, can offer reasonable containment of James, but since that is a tall order for any bipedal organism on this planet the plan relies on Kevin Garnett being one of the best help defenders in the league.
After Allen runs up to the ball and James slips a quick screen, immediately drawing Garnett across the paint, the ball reaches Norris Cole on the opposite side of the floor. And with the strong-side now flipped, Paul Pierce closes hard on Shane Battier in the corner and stays there, with Allen barely given an inch more.
While the concept of a strong and weak side might seem elementary, it might help to paraphrase and explanation Battier offered up a few weeks ago: The floor is divided into two planes, cut right down the middle. The strong side is the one the ball is on. It doesn’t matter how many players are in how many places. If the ball is on the right side and everyone else is navigating a labyrinth of screens on the left, the right side is strong. And if the ball is sitting directly in the middle of the floor, there is no strong side.
The source of help defense isn’t always immediately obvious – it’s typically a big man waiting along the baseline – but the Celtics are not supposed to help off that strongside corner. Pierce is right on Battier in the above image and he’s supposed to stay there even if Cole drives right on by. But if the ball reverses field, he sinks in a step closer to the paint, ready to back up Garnett.
This scheme held the team leading the league in both takes and makes from the corner to 1-of-8 shooting from that zone, because if the corners weren’t being suffocated like this:
Then either the defender was close enough to contest the shot, or someone made a mistake. And when mistakes happen with Boston, it’s usually because Garnett isn’t around.
Some Breathing Room
As Boston made a string of shots to take the lead, the HEAT needed two triples in the final minute in order to force extra time, both coming about in part due to Garnett being out of position to defend dribble penetration.
Three of Miami’s corner three attempts actually came in the last 90 seconds of the fourth quarter, the first two of which came off transition opportunities when Garnett was either:
1. Trailing the play, forcing Pierce to sink too far into the paint from the weak side – giving up a Battier miss here (and again, notice the defense removing Allen entirely from the play).
Or 2. Garnett is switched onto James, again drawing Pierce too far into the paint as the ball swings around the arc and Jeff Green gets caught in no man’s land.
But it wasn’t until the HEAT’s final chance, down three, that they earned a corner look out of half-court offense – which naturally missed and forced James to come up with a last-ditch attempt.
Miami’s final possession of regulation is also nice example of what Battier was speaking about. Because James starts off (effectively) in the middle of the floor, there is no strong side. Garnett is still technically the lead helper, but Pierce has to play off the corner somewhat – a little easier because the passing lane to Battier is somewhat filled – while Lee hugs Allen on the wing with Boston not wanting to concede a triple.
Pierce really shouldn’t help here, but because he sees Garnett out of position at the high elbow – a smart misdirection by Erik Spoelstra – he sinks in just enough so that when Battier springs Allen with a back-screen, Allen gets justenough space to get a shot off.
Allen misses, but the ball finds James. Now Boston is scrambling, and the fatal mistake is when Lee leaves Battier to find his assignment, Allen, and Avery Bradley tries to switch back with Pierce. This leaves Battier uncovered just long enough to give James a timely screen with no defender to jump out and defend the arc. Overtime.
It's important to note that there is nothing inherently special about what Boston is trying to do. Most NBA teams want the strongside defender to stay home in the corner, but it takes a degree of discipline -- and trust in a big man like Garnett or Joakim Noah -- to stay steady while the rest of the defense becomes a typhoon of help.
In the second extra period the HEAT did eventually earn a Bosh dunk using a side pick-and-roll to draw Garnett out of the paint, but in ten bonus minutes Miami managed just 11 points to top off a game of barely-40 percent shooting. There were still makeable shots in the paint, but Garnett was always there when the defense was set, and it’s a testament to the scheme that Miami’s most open looks came in transition and off loose-ball situations. This was a tour-de-force performance for what is still one of the league’s premier defenses – with Garnett on the floor – and even if you err on the HEAT’s side of this battle, it’s a good day to take a step back and appreciate the defense Miami beat in order to earn today’s trip to the White House. Because you never know when a chapter might end, and that defense will become something you tell people about instead of watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon.