The Indiana Pacers have the league’s best defense. Between personnel and scheme, they make it extremely difficult for opposing offenses to score efficiently for any extended period of time.
The Boston Celtics have one of the league’s worst offenses. Their 100.4 O-Rtg–per NBA.com–ranks just 21st in the league. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Celtics posted just a 93.3 O-Rtg in their game against the Pacers last night.
Boston shot 41.0% from the field, which is right around the average for Indiana opponents this season, per NBA.com. The one area of the court they did have success is one they’ve been looking to exploit more often with Rajon Rondo out for the season, and also one where the Pacers are thought to be at least a little bit vulnerable: the mid-range area near the elbows, from which they shot 50%.
Indiana’s defensive strategy when guarding pick-and-rolls involves having their bigs–Roy Hibbert, David West, Ian Mahinmi–hang back to meet guards in the lane either at or below the free throw line. In conjunction with this, they have their wing players stay home on three-point shooters; Indiana would prefer to give up a mid-range jumper off the dribble as opposed to a catch-and-shoot three. It’s a good strategy that has worked extremely well this season: the Pacers rate as the best team in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage in the restricted area and on corner threes–widely considered the two most important areas of the court to defend in today’s increasingly analytically-inclined NBA–and their opponents have attempted the fifth and third fewest shots from those locations, respectively.
However, as ESPN The Magazine’s Jordan Brenner noted recently in an incredibly detailed piece on the Portland Trail Blazers analytics department, that strategy can sometimes leave holes in the Indiana defense for open mid-range jumpers. Though they aren’t normally high value shots for most teams, Boston is an exception to the rule. They take far too many mid-range shots, but the Celtics also connect on the second-highest percentage of any team in the league on those attempts, per NBA.com. Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass aren’t huge threats diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls, but they can float to the space above the free throw line and nail jumpers with the best of them.
And that’s exactly what they did last night. On each of the four plays above, a Celtic big man–whether it be Garnett or Bass–sets a screen, then just kind of floats in the area above the free throw line waiting for a pass. Each time, the Pacer guarding the screener–either Hibbert or West–sinks back into the lane to defend against the drive while the player being screened recovers, at which point Hibbert or West first makes a move to go back to his man. The result was four wide open jumpers, and four makes. Boston roll men went 5-for-7 from the field in the game, with Garnett also getting a dunk and missing two jumpers (one contested, one open) at the end of the shot clock.
Pick-and-roll ball-handlers for the Celtics shot just 5-for-15 in the game, but 4 of those makes came near the elbows, to go with only 4 misses. Again, Indiana’s defensive system is designed to force those types of shots, but if a team gets hot from that area, it can make the Pacers pay.
On the first play above, the ball eventually gets swung to Avery Bradley in the corner, where he kicks off a side pick-and-roll. The Pacers, as most NBA teams do these days, attempt to “down” it, forcing the ball-handler back toward the baseline and away from the middle. You can see West jump out on the high side of the ball-handler, looking to cut off his driving lane, but he gets there too late, and Bradley turns the corner and wind up with an elbow jumper.
The second set is one we’ll get back to later, but it involves Jeff Green entering the ball to Garnett at the left elbow, then getting a faux-dribble handoff before coming around a back screen and heading for the rim. Garnett’s pass to Green gets deflected, so he sets up a side pick-and-roll with the screener, Jason Terry. Without fail, Garnett’s man–Hibbert–sinks back toward the lane as Terry turns the corner, so Terry releases a quick-trigger jumper that finds net. Indiana can and will live with possessions like this because Terry forcing a pull-up jumper over the 7’2″ Hibbert’s reach is a low value proposition, but again this is the exact shot the defense can be vulnerable to.
On the third play, you see a bit of a different strategy from Indiana, because Paul Pierce is the screener and not one of the Celtic bigs. Paul George jumps out and tries to redirect Avery Bradley’s route as he comes around the screen, but he gets there a split second too late, Bradley again turns the corner, and he winds up with another open elbow jumper.
The last play is extremely tough to defend. The pick-and-roll in delayed transition often results in the big man defender being out of position, and that’s what happens here. Hibbert is rightly concentrated on getting back to defend the rim, so when his man stops short to set a screen for Courtney Lee, Lee is able to take advantage of the fact that Hibbert’s in no position to contest his shot.
Let’s go back to the second set above. With the game tied and 23.3 seconds left, that’s the exact play the Celtics run to get the game winning basket. It’s a late-game situation and the Boston Celtics have the ball, so you can’t fault the Pacers too much for expecting Paul Pierce to get a touch. That expectation, though, is what ultimately does them in on this play.
After running the clock down for a sufficient amount of time, the Celtics eventually got the ball to Green near the top of the key. He swung it over to Garnett near the left elbow and kicked off the familiar action from the second play above.
As Green moves from right to left, pay attention to David West; he’s trailing Green on the play. No one on the Pacers thinks this play is for Jeff Green. Why would they? Paul Pierce is on the floor, and this is his time to shine. Even the Pacers announcers are expecting Pierce to come up near the elbow and get the hand-off from Garnett after he fakes one to Green.
But instead, Pierce stops mid-route and sets a killer back screen, taking West and George out of the play in one fell swoop. George is justifiably preoccupied denying Pierce the ball as he moves toward Garnett at the elbow, and Hibbert steps out just above the free throw line to deny Garnett the open jumper with so little time on the clock. The result is that two defenders get caught up on each other, and Green sneaks back door for the game-winning lay-in.
Boston has been hurting teams with this kind of elbow action ever since Rajon Rondo went out and they lost one of their only two true perimeter creators. Hand-offs from Garnett or Bass to Pierce, Bradley or Terry moving toward the middle of the court have become the best way for the Celtics to generate movement of both the ball and their players, and Indiana was clearly expecting just that on the final possession. They saw this play earlier in the game and snuffed it out, but at the end of the game, they were just too concentrated on Paul Pierce to do it again.