The New York Knicks went 3-1 against the Boston Celtics this season, handling them with ease in the final two matchups and splitting two other close games. But in their first round playoff series, we can safely expect the Celtics to tighten up their defense and raise their level of play by a few notches: they were the No. 5 seed last season and pushed Miami to the brink, after all. But what will most likely remain the same is the how the Celtics defense schematically handles New York’s offense. In particular, Carmelo Anthony.
Boston’s philosophy is a rather simple one: when Melo is in isolation, jam the paint from the weak side and have a second defender periodically bait him to move the ball.
Except due to the overload, most skip pass angles are completely cut off. His only kick out option, then, is to the top of the key to Iman Shumpert. Most times, the help defender (Jeff Green) is able to easily recover. Or he can go one-on-one, but there are no driving angles; the mere presence of multiple paint defenders discourages anything towards the paint. And that means he’s left with a contested pull-up jumper.
Now, this isn’t the worst shot in the world for Melo. It’s one of his go-to moves, actually. But the difference here is that he’s left with no other choice. Knowing that he has signifcant help beside and behind him, Bass can crowd Melo and make that shot even more difficult than it already is. And if Melo pulled up for a jumper on every possession, Boston would consider that a win anyway.
But should he choose to attack the bucket – and successfully get there – he’s often swallowed up by the collapse. (Remember that it’s aided by the defenders close proximity to the hoop in the first place.) Melo is therefore forced to take a difficult shot at the rim instead of kicking it out to three-point shooters because his court vision has been shrunk by a sea of green defenders. There’s essentially nowhere for him to go with the ball except forward.
Tom Thibodeau first popularized this strategy against LeBron James with Boston, and has helped Chicago bottle up various scorers over the years as well. Here’s the play in full:
But this begs a further question: how have the Knicks played so well against Boston? How have they scored so many points if Boston’s defense has held Carmelo Anthony to 35% shooting in four matchups this season? Is it the other Knicks? 46% from the field for the rest of the team would seem to indicate that yes, Melo’s teammates are picking up the slack. Except all’s not as well as it appears.
What the Celtics defense has done, in its lone win and three losses, is effectively knock the Knicks out of its comfort zone: Carmelo Anthony isolations and three-point shooting. The former is clear in that 35% number; the latter can be explained by this:
Notice the contested attempts. There’s an almost 2:1 ratio of contested to uncontested three-point looks, which is a troubling indicator that Boston’s defense should work on this front, too: they’re forcing New York into difficult shots with regularity.
Take, for instance, this Steve Novak three. When Melo whips a cross-court pass to him, the extra time the ball is in the air allows Jordan Crawford time to completely recover and heavily contest the three-point attempt.
And now in real time:
Too bad for Boston that it’s Novak who catches the ball. For any other player on the court, that’s a pretty horrible shot.
Think of it this way: one of the Knicks’ keys throughout the season hasn’t been some analytics-heavy approach favoring trigger-happy heaves from distance; it’s been the systematic creation of high quality shots from beyond the arc, coupled with all of that Melo-ball and Felton-Chandler alley-oops. And when they don’t go in, the Knicks remain consistent in their shot quality generation. Even in a loss to Philadelphia earlier this season, when the Knicks shot 4-27 from deep and got blown out, 12 of their first 16 three-pointers were solid looks (more on that here).
So the notion that the Knicks can’t live by the three is mostly false. But that Boston has managed to neutralize both Melo’s isolations and the long ball is not the greatest omen. And if this well-contested three-point shot trend continues during the playoffs, don’t be surprised to see a serious drop-off in New York’s three-point shooting percentage.
Still: the Knicks won three out of four games with erratic three-point shooting and poor play from Melo. Why? How did the team shoot 46%? The pick and roll. Running heavy doses of pick-and-roll allows Carmelo and JR Smith to play catch-and-shoot basketball rather than having to attack a defense that is keyed in on stopping their drives. They’ve both been extremely effective in this role this season.
Excluding the occasional forced alley-oop, Raymond Felton is a great decision maker when he reaches the paint. And it’s not just the pass-shoot dilemma – he makes the right pass quite often. But there’s an added ingredient here: Avery Bradley. Part of his defensive DNA is to pressure the ball, or at least gesture towards the ball handler at all times. But by keeping himself in close proximity to his man, he’s somewhat cutting off his peripheral vision and ability to recognize oncoming screens. What ends up happening is that a Knicks big man is able create separation between Felton and Bradley, either by forcing Bradley to maneuver around or knocking him off Felton completely. Either way, Felton is able to drive directly into the paint. Take this situation below, in which Kenyon Martin screens Bradley and puts Bradley in a trail position.
Martin stays wide to keep Chris Wilcox from sliding too far down into the paint; Felton intelligently keeps Bradley on his back and dribbles right in front of him. The rest of the Celtics defenders are too worried about the shooters (Carmelo Anthony, Iman Shumpert) to commit completely.
By the time help comes, Felton has swung the ball to the corner to Iman Shumpert, who flips the ball to a wide open Carmelo Anthony for an uncontested three. And so a simple top of the key screen threw off Boston’s rotations, from which they could not recover. A downhill Raymond Felton is the best kind of Raymond Felton.
Here’s the play at full speed:
With Tyson Chandler in the game, the defensive predicament becomes even worse. As he barrels down towards the rim defenders must choose: collapse to guard against the alley-oop or stay at home on shooters. Oh, and don’t let Felton get a layup, either.
But the Knicks can’t run the pick and roll every play. We can be sure that Doc Rivers will find a way for his defense to be more effective against New York now that he’s had more than a few days to fully scout and prepare. But in the meantime, how do the Knicks get Carmelo Anthony going? It’s hard to imagine a series win without Melo contributing significantly. Even if he might have an off game or two, they’ll most certainly need him, at the very least, late in games.
You might have noticed that most of Melo’s isolations occur at the baseline. Maybe it’s his favorite spot on the floor. Maybe Woodson likes it because it allows shooters to clear out the most. It’s hard to say. But the overload from the weak side has proven its worth, and those baselines isos are mostly rendered moot. So where should Melo isolate instead? The elbow.
Here’s the difference: when Melo catches the ball at the elbow, it disrupts a few things the Celtics can throw at him:
1) No more lob passes. The shorter distance between himself and his surrounding shooters and his centralized location on the floor means a shorter distance to pass the ball; but more importantly it creates more concrete passing angles, giving him breathing room to kick the ball out before defenders in help position can recover.
2) There’s no help defense in the paint. Melo’s closer proximity to the shooters, coupled with easier passing angles, means there’s no hedging on help defense. It’s either a double team or nothing. Anything in-between and Melo will laser a pass to a shooter before the defender can recover. It’s why Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley are staying completely at home.
3) Near-side shooter opens the floor. See where Jason Kidd is? You’ll notice in the video below that Courtney Lee, Kidd’s defender, only swipes at Melo; he doesn’t dare to leave Kidd fully, because that pass is way too short for him to recover in time. Melo is therefore in full isolation, except with the added benefit of one of Boston’s defenders essentially trapped in the corner. It’s pure and simple 1-on-1.
Fine, fine. Melo doesn’t exactly, well, score. Chalk that one up to good defense by Jeff Green. But hopefully you get the idea. The Knicks need to change something up offensively if they hope to get Melo going, and this seems like the easiest way to take advantage of their assets and keep Boston’s overloading at bay.
Depending on who Boston uses to guard Anthony, different players will have to step up. If it’s Brandon Bass (don’t rule this out, Boston used Bass on LeBron last year), Melo will likely be able to get his own by using his quickness to drive by Bass, or backing him off with jab steps for jumpers. If the Celtics cross match by putting Green or Pierce on Melo and using Bass on Shumpert, Novak, Copeland or even Smith, those will be the guys who have to make Boston pay with corner 3s and drives to the rim. You can expect the Celtics to mix up their coverages, so it will likely have to be a total team effort.