While the regular season is a grueling slog that forces teams to think big picture, the NBA playoffs are a different beast. Each game becomes a chess match, where little strategic nuances can be the difference between success and failure. In these previews, we’ll take a look at one intriguing tactical quandary facing each team.
- The Isaiah Thomas-Al Horford pick-and-roll
Along with the injury to Rajon Rondo, the Celtics were able to turn their first round series against the Bulls around by combining their two most notable players. Horford and Thomas -- with spacing around them -- is a tactical nightmare for opposing coaches. With Thomas’ expanded skill set and Horford’s ability to both roll to the rim and pop with equal effectiveness, there is no good way to contain this action.
If an opposing big sags too deep trying to contain Thomas near the rim, they’ll have to deal with Horford hanging back and launching 3-pointers. Because he shot 35.5 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season and 53.8 percent on 13 attempts against Chicago, leaving Horford the time and space to bomb away from 3-point territory is a losing proposition for the Washington defense. And if the Wizards ask Marcin Gortat, Jason Smith or any of their other frontcourt defenders to sink deep to contain Thomas and then rush out at Horford, Boston’s big man has the ability to do this:
Horford is also crafty enough that he leverages the fear of his jumper into easy baskets for himself and teammates. If the Wizards choose to “flat show” or any other type of coverage to contain Thomas near the point of the screen and keep the bigs higher on the floor to create an easier recovery angle to a popping Horford, the Boston big man will just do this:
And when he’s not slipping to the rim or actually hitting shots, the fear for an open Horford jumper can put the Wizard’s bigs in no man’s land -- caught between wanting to rush back to the Celtics versatile center and staying near the rim to prevent Thomas layups. Because Thomas is so good at changing his pace, having players like Gortat or Smith defend in open space while worried about the responsibility to get back to Horford can lead to plays like this:
Entering Game 1, it’s clear Washington can’t just solve this Horford-Thomas riddle with a 2-man solution. Instead, the Wizards will have to bring extra bodies into the mix, potentially exposing themselves to a barrage of open jumpers. Despite his regular season success, the Bulls found some success abandoning Jae Crowder -- from different spots on the floor -- and using his man to make life difficult for Thomas and Horford. If Crowder was located higher on the wing, Chicago would sometimes have his man pinch into Thomas’ driving gap:
This ploy allows the big to stick with Horford and putting the responsibility of stopping dribble penetration on the nail (middle of the free throw line) defender. It isn’t a new concept for pick-and-rolls with an empty side (meaning no help on the weakside), but it might be something for Washington to consider when Crowder or Marcus Smart are located the next pass over -- and the pick-and-roll is taking place closer to sideline (a standard middle pick-and-roll changes the alignment).
The Bulls got a big lucky because Crowder’s excellent regular season 3-point mark of 39.8 percent should have translated into a punishing result when left open. But because of his struggles in the last series -- Crowder dipped to 27.3 percent on 5.5 attempts per game -- Chicago was able to help off aggressively like this...
….and not be hurt by it.
Washington will have to decide whether abandoning a specific Boston shooter to force tough shots or passes out will be a winning tactic in this second round series. The Thomas-Horford pick-and-roll is a dicey proposition, but if the Wizards gamble on the right coverage, they could shut down a key part of the Celtics attack.
- Iso-John and Boston’s guard gauntlet
Though John Wall is known for his passing brilliance, he also accumulated the most isolation possessions for the team during the regular season, per Synergy data. To think that Wall is turning into Hawks-era Joe Johnson is a bit misleading. With the amount of time Wall spends with the ball in his hands, it’s natural for him to be forced into iso’s, especially during short clock or end of game/quarter situations.
The problem for Washington during the regular was that Wall’s isolation attacks, likely because of those tough situations, produced a pretty poor return on investment. That changed during the Hawks series where 38 Wall iso’s -- where he either shot or passed it -- churned out an impressive 1.32 points per possession. So the question now is, does this number force changes to Boston’s defensive approach.
The answer is both yes and no. Because of their frequency and late success, defending Wall one-on-one is going to be in the Celtic’s game prep. Each of Boston’s players tasked with Wall will be given instructions as to where to shade him and what type of shot to force him to take. On top of that, the team may drill some special, “back pocket” tactics like trapping or flooding help in order to squash Wall’s success attacking in isolations.
But data aside, basketball simply comes down to players making plays. Atlanta saw Wall tear them up in part because their perimeter defenders simply can’t compete with Wall one-on-one. Dennis Schroder lacked the strength to push Wall off his drives and, in general, the savvy to contain him. Kent Bazemore, Jose Calderon and any other Hawk guard that saw time on Wall was at similar disadvantages.
Boston, however, has cadre of guards up for the task of defending the Wizard’s offensive engine. Avery Bradley has the length and quickness to match Wall’s speed. Smart and Crowder have the size and strength to give the 6’4”, 210-pound a dose of his own physicality. Even the diminutive Isaiah Thomas is stout enough that Wall’s improvised, transition backdown-iso’s won’t cause too much panic.
If the Celtic guards can contain these frequent one-on-one battles with Wall with no help, it’s going to stop the Wizards from finding efficient points from an action they typically would be best avoiding. But if Wall continues his playoff success in these isolation situations, Boston could find themselves in another uphill battle this series.