So, 85-78. A win! That’s good, for Knicks fans. But Boston’s defense was strong and frustrated Carmelo Anthony, all while keeping the rest of the team relatively in check. And even though Boston’s offense is, at times, inept, it’s safe to assume they’ll score more than eight points in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
And so we return to the Knicks’ offense. What went right? What went wrong?
Bad Job, Bad Effort:
The Boston Celtics want Carmelo to isolate on the baseline. The Boston Celtics want J.R. Smith to go one-on-one and waste away the shot clock by holding the ball for five seconds. The Boston Celtics want Raymond Felton to walk the ball up the floor and initiate the offense with 13 seconds or less. But man, those isolations. It’s an unfortunate cycle the Knicks fall into: when the offense is struggling, New York starts dumping it down to Melo even more, hoping he can will them out of a slump. But this plays into Boston’s hands even more, and so we’re left with 85 points in a basketball game.
I talked about this in the pre-series playoff capsule, but apparently Mike Woodson doesn’t read HoopChalk. Damn shame, since you’re not asking. Doc Rivers did not change – not one bit – how he defends Melo. During the season, Boston’s defense held Melo to 35% shooting by cramping his space and overloading the paint with weak side help. He then used a second defender near the top of the key to creep towards Melo as a weak, pass-baiting double team.
From the Knicks’ matchup against the Celtics on March 31st:
From Game 1:
Kevin Garnett is in a help position should Melo drive middle. Brandon Bass is all the way under the basket to rotate for anything baseline. Melo only has two options – take a contested jump shot against Paul Pierce, who is crowding him heavily because he knows his reinforcements are behind him, or reset and kick the ball back out to Raymond Felton. All other passing lanes are cut off. Rivers is catering to Melo’s shoot first instinct.
In real time:
But the real genius of Rivers’ strategy isn’t just forcing Melo-ball – it’s the quiet alienation of other Knicks’ players. With Anthony going isolation on nearly every possession that he touches the ball – in the first half, he passed on three of his 26 touches – the rest of the team falls out of sync and is more inclined to go one-on-one, J.R. Smith in particular. Basketball is very childish in this way. Just take a look at what happened isolation-wise throughout the entire game:
51.4% of half-court possessions ended in isolation, and this doesn’t even included end of shot clock heaves – these were purely isolations by design, or plays when J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony chose to disrupt the flow of the offense by holding the ball or dribbling to set up their own one-on-one. Boston, as they’re designed to do, swallowed this up, holding the Knicks to 31.6% shooting on these plays. In terms of the rest of the series, two players accounting for 47.3% of the offense in isolation doesn’t bode well.
The NYK alternative to iso-ball is the pick and roll; get Raymond Felton into the lane, kick to shooters. In the previous four regular season games against Boston, this proved rather easy because the man guarding the roller would lay off Felton and give him space to operate in the lane.
As for why this was Boston’s initial strategy, it’s difficult to say. It could have been due to Felton’s early-season propensity for pull-up jumpers: teams were giving him space on the pick and roll, and he seemed content to jack shots from 18 feet – despite only shooting 37% from 16-23 feet on the season (according to HoopData). Not to mention J.R. Smith or Carmelo Anthony, who are deeply in love with long twos.
But at least against Boston in the latter portion of the season, Felton was attacking the space on the pick and roll, even if there was no direct path to the rim. This way the defense would collapse and he could swing the ball back out to the perimeter for an eventual three-pointer. Like so:
But during Game 1, Boston switched up its pick and roll defense and generally kept New York out of its ball-swinging ways. And this is what really cornered New York into an iso-heavy style of play. New York’s offense often lacks secondary action; if the initial play doesn’t work, they dump it to someone (usually Melo) for an iso. Knowing they could easily disrupt Melo’s baseline play with its weak side help, the Celtics made a concerted effort to buoy the Knicks towards isolation by keeping Raymond Felton out of the paint. That’s where he does most of his passing damage, and what keys much of the three-point shooting.
So what changed, exactly? Garnett and other Celtics big men held their ground, confronting ball handlers farther from the basket.
Which, naturally, led exactly where Boston wanted: J.R. Smith staring down a Celtics-filled paint with minimal time left on the shot clock. His only passing option, Carmelo Anthony, is all the way across the court and would require an easily intercepted lob.
So what happens? Smith goes iso and barrels into the paint, hoisting up a wild a shot.
There were, on occasion, times when the Celtics bottled up the ball handler before he could slash through the paint, but he would still manage to find a shooter. In this case, Raymond Felton lasering a pass to Jason Kidd on the right side.
But by using wing defenders to pinch in as opposed to the more traditional corner defender (because the longer pass is more difficult – Miami does this to bait teams into turnovers) – they were able to rotate back in time to contest the three-pointer. Here, we can see that Jordan Crawford is able to bother Jason Kidd at the point of release.
Any and all contested looks is a win for Boston. Now at full speed:
Good Job, Good Effort:
The Knicks aren’t going to have sustained success in these playoffs without a functioning pick and roll attack. So how do they get it going? By initiating it farther from the basket. Celtics defenders – Avery Bradley, in particular – relentlessly pressure the ball. In Game 1, the ball pressure often times didn’t allow them to get into their sets until late in the shot clock, leading to an isolation. What did work to counteract this, however, was initiating the pick and roll extremely far from the basket.
Why did this work? Two reasons. Boston’s away-from-the-basket ball pressure let Tyson Chandler or Kenyon Martin set a screen pretty much anywhere across the half court line. But more importantly, it drew a second big man defender – Kevin Garnett, on most occasions – far from the basket. With Felton now moving downhill at speed towards Garnett, he was able to explode past him for a layup or into the paint, at minimum. Whereas with a pick and roll closer to the basket, there’s less space to attack and more certainty as to where Felton will end up. This ends up freezing help defenders while also neutralizing any blocks from behind by the big man.
Fine, fine, picture time.
Look at far out Kevin Garnett is drawn because Tyson Chandler is able to get a piece of Avery Bradley. There’s a gigantic amount of space behind him, and an already-moving-downhill Felton now has free reign to attack that space against a slow-footed and backpedaling Garnett. By the three-point line, Felton is already going past him.
Not to mention that this further strains the problem the Knicks spacing creates. Paul Pierce doesn’t know whether to leave Iman Shumpert (and Carmelo Anthony, sort of) completely wide open on the weak side. Brandon Bass doesn’t want to leave Chris Copeland and give up a three-pointer on the near side. What we’re left with then, is a straight line path to the basket and a layup:
The Knicks used this type of stretched screen and roll more than once during the game, and it worked to give Felton operating room nearly every time. See here for two more examples:
But only time will tell if New York can move away from isolations in Game 2.