This is Part Two of a deconstruction of the Knicks’ offense in their series against the Boston Celtics. In Part One at Hardwood Paroxysm, we covered just what has happened to the offense from an overarching statistical perspective. Here, we’re diving into exactly how and why it has happened with the Xs and Os.
In Part One, we established that the Knicks have seen a sharp decrease in offensive efficiency due to poor shot distribution brought on by too much one-on-one play. Just how drastic has the difference in efficiency been when the Knicks play one-on-one vs. when they play pick-and-roll?
That is mighty drastic. With the use of play tracking data and video from mySynergySports, we can see that the Knicks have registered just 0.74 points per play (PPP) on plays finished with an isolation, post-up, or spot-up created by an isolation or post-up throughout this series. They are shooting just 48-143 (33.6 percent) on 190 such plays. Conversely, the Knicks have scored 1.12 PPP on plays finished out of the the pick-and-roll, whether by the ball handler, the roll man, or a spot-up shooter. They are 73-148 (49.3 percent) from the field on 156 such plays.
This is where we dig into the tape: what exactly is Boston doing to shut New York down in isolation? Are the Knicks doing anything to counteract it? Conversely, what are the Knicks doing to impose their will on pick-and-rolls? How has Boston responded?
Of New York’s 133 plays finished (FGA, FTA or TO) with a straight isolation in Games 1-5, 73 (54.8 percent) have been finished by Carmelo Anthony, so it’s wise to start there when looking for trends.
Carmelo is shooting just 30.9 percent and scoring 0.71 PPP on isolation plays in Games 1-5, far below his season averages of 40.3 percent and 0.89 PPP. His shooting foul to turnover ratio in isolation during the season was 1.26:1, and since only 9 of his 11 fouls drawn on isolation plays in the playoffs have been shooting fouls, that ratio has essentially held steady at 1.29:1.
So, why is Melo shooting so poorly in isolation?
Long story short – too many jumpers. A ridiculous 42 of Carmelo’s 73 isolation plays have ended with him taking a jumper; 76.4 percent of his isolation shots have been jumpers. He’s taken only 10 combined layups and dunks in isolation, along with 2 hook shots and 1 “shot,” per Synergy. Worse yet, he’s made only 11 of those 42 jumpers for a 26.2 percent conversion rate, while shooting 4-10 on layups and dunks and 2-3 on hooks/other shots.
No matter where Carmelo gets his isolation, the Celtics are employing their famous pack the paint, strong side overload defensive strategy. Watch as the Celtics systematically close off the paint in unison to shut down one of Melo’s favorite plays – the wing isolation – over the course of the next three pictures.
Avery Bradley slides from the three point line to the elbow, Kevin Garnett moves from the far side of the lane between the block and the elbow to the middle of the restricted area, and Paul Pierce drops from above the elbow to the middle of the lane, just outside the restricted area.
As Carmelo catches the ball, Brandon Bass gets right up inside his body. Boston wants Carmelo to put the ball on the floor, at which point they can flood the lane and cut off his drive, causing him to pull up for a jumper. Lucky for them, that’s exactly what he does, and what he has done throughout the series.
Melo catches the ball with 11 seconds on the shot clock, at which point no Boston defender other than Garnett has even one foot in the lane. By the time Melo starts his dribble with 7 seconds on the shot clock, Garnett, Bradley, Pierce and Green all have one or both feet in the lane. That’s all meant to deter the drive, and Melo obliges by taking a pull-up jumper.
Not only have the Celtics employed this strategy for wing isolations, they’ve also done it when Melo gets the clearout at or near the top of the key. In fact, they’ve been even more aggressive in choking off driving lanes when Melo isolates up top.
Here, Carmelo has Jeff Green isolated just to the right of the top of the arc. Check out the other four Celtic defenders. Each of them is somewhat ignoring their own man to concentrate on Melo. Paul Pierce is dangerously close to the lane for someone that is guarding a 40 percent three point shooter (Iman Shumpert) located in the strong side corner. Garnett has slid off Tyson Chandler and is zoning up in the middle of the lane. Jason Terry has in turn has dropped off Jason Kidd in the opposite corner to help on Chandler down low. And Avery Bradley is basically treating Raymond Felton as if he doesn’t exist on the weak side wing (not necessarily a bad idea against a poor three point shooter who is for some reason stationed about five feet outside the three point line). This particular play ended with Melo missing a driving runner over KG in the lane.
Even when the Knicks engineered a switch to get Melo isolated on a big at the top of the key, the Celtics still found a way to employ their usual strategy for defending isolations and shut it down.
Everyone is in their right spot. All five guys have their eyes on the isolation. Bass zones up on the strong side while Pierce leaves Kidd alone in the corner to cover Chandler in the lane. Terry ignores Felton on the wing to cut off the driving lane to the middle of the court, while Avery Bradley roams between the shooters on the weak side. But still, the Knicks have Melo isolated on KG, which should be a win for the offense. However, we know that the wing/big mismatch is a bit of a myth because more often than not, the offensive player will settle for a jumper rather than using his quickness advantage to drive the lane. And that’s exactly what Melo does here.
When Melo sees that he’s drawn KG on the switch, he motions for both Kidd and Chandler to clear out that side of the court for him. He wants to take Garnett to the rim. But once Bass zones up on that side of the court, Melo resorts to the jumper.
In our Knicks playoff capsule, Dylan suggested running Melo’s isolations from the elbow to counteract the strong side overload defense. But even that hasn’t dissuaded the Celtics from packing the paint and forcing Melo into inefficient looks.
Bass once again puts in a nice individual effort to force Melo where he wants him to go, while KG drops down from the far side of the lane to the middle of the restricted area. Green ignores Kidd on the opposite wing, leaving Courtney Lee to cover the shooters on the weak side. Once again, Melo pulls up for a contested jumper.
You’d think that devoting all those extra defenders to the strong side on isolations would lead to a whole lot of spot-up opportunities on the weak side corner and wing, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. The Knicks have gotten only 27 spot-up opportunities out of plays that originated with either an isolation or a post-up through the first five games of the series, and they’ve turned only 25.9 percent of those spot-ups into baskets.
Because the Knicks can get awful stagnant when engaged in a lot of isolation play, the ball simply doesn’t move as well, or as often. You may have noticed a common theme in the videos above – while Melo was isolating, the shooters stationed around the perimeter weren’t doing anything. They were just watching Melo do his thing. There was no misdirection, no sliding into passing lanes, no flow.
When they’re at their best, isolation play can work for the Knicks, and indeed that was the case throughout the regular season (they did rank 7th in PPP on isolation plays, per Synergy). The selfish ball movement system they played for most of the season is all about capitalizing on the good kinds of isolations – those that materialize naturally within the flow of the offense and stem from persistent ball movement. Picture Anthony getting the ball on a kickout, ready to attack an on-the-move defender with a blowby. The bad kind of isolations – those where a player parks himself in a spot on the floor and simply waits for the ball while his teammates stand around and watch (think of any play from last year’s playoff series against the Heat) – can paralyze an offense, and we’ve seen far too many of those so far in the playoffs.
On the other hand, when it comes to the pick-and-roll, the Celtics have not been able to stop the Knicks at all, and they’ve particularly struggled to contain Raymond Felton. Felton has taken 36 of New York’s 75 ball handler shots out of pick-and-rolls, and he’s made 20 (55.6 percent) of them.
When Felton has found success, it’s been in the exact manner you’d expect – he’s aggressively taking the ball to the basket; 14 of Felton’s 20 hoops as a pick-and-roll ball handler during this series have been layups (on 19 attempts), while only 6 have been made jumpers (on 17 attempts).
Here’s what I wrote about Felton’s pick-and-roll performance after Game 3.
Throughout this opening round, Felton has been aggressive in attacking that space more often than not. As a result, he is 11-for-18 from the field as a pick-and-roll ball handler, according to mySynergySports. Eight of those 11 baskets have been layups, and two were jumpers inside the lane. All told, he’s 8-for-11 on layups and 3-for-7 on jumpers, but 1-for-4 on jumpers outside the lane, out of the pick-and-roll.
The fact that he’s doing this against Boston, which ranked third best in the league at defending pick-and-roll ball handlers this season, is all the more impressive. The Celtics allowed just 0.72 points per play to pick-and-roll ball handlers this season, holding them to just 38.7 percent shooting and forcing turnovers on 21.7 percent of possessions, per Synergy.
Meanwhile, Felton is shooting 61.1 percent from the field and has dished eight assists to only two turnovers out of the pick-and-roll thus far.
What’s changed since then? Not much. Boston’s been slightly better at slowing Felton down, but he’s still been extremely effective as a pick-and-roll ball handler. After shooting 11-for-18 as a ball-handler through the first three games of the series, Felton hit on 9 of 18 attempts in Games 4 and 5, 6 of which were layups. His field goal percentage has dipped ever so slightly, and he’s turned it over three times while dishing four more assists out of pick-and-rolls. Overall, he’s 20-36 from the field with 12 assists and 5 turnovers as a pick-and-roll ball handler through five games.
Of those 12 assists, 4 have been to spot-up shooters, accounting for 1/6th of New York’s 24 baskets on spot-ups originating out of pick-and-rolls, with the others being set up by Carmelo, JR Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Kidd and Iman Shumpert. Felton has also assisted 8 of New York’s 14 baskets scored by roll men in the series.
When Boston has hung back to try to bait him into jumpers, Felton has attacked the open space and found the big man underneath the hoop. And when they’ve changed up their strategy to pick him up near the three point line, Felton has taken advantage of the space near the rim to hit the Celtics with lobs.
Meanwhile, Anthony – the most efficient scorer in the league as a pick-and-roll ball handler this season, per Synergy – has finished only 9 plays as a ball handler in pick-and-rolls through the first five games of the series. Naturally, he is 8-9 from the field for 19 points (a totally preposterous 2.11 PPP) on such plays.
The Celtics just have no answer for Carmelo when he’s working over the top of a screen, particularly in delayed transition, where he’s gotten some easy three point looks. All he needs is a modicum of space to get off that pull-up jumper, and then when the big man starts creeping out to deny the pull-up, Melo throws him the hesitation move to get into the lane.
It’s not just scoring that has come easier for Anthony out of pick-and-rolls either. 4 of his 6 assists in the series have come when he originated the play as a pick-and-roll ball handler, as he’s flashed the capability to pick out shooters and cutters alike. Based on the foregoing, New York’s refusal to run plays with Anthony as the pick-and-roll ball handler is pretty remarkable. Coach Woodson said yesterday that he wants to use Melo in this role more often, but we’ve heard that before and it hasn’t happened yet.
Forcing the ball to Anthony in designed isolations rather than either setting him a screen or letting the ball find him (or others) through pick-and-roll play and subsequent ball movement has led to a staggering drop in both his and the team’s efficiency during the playoffs. With the Knicks likely to face the Indiana Pacers – who play a similar style of defense – in the next round if they can manage beat Boston in one of the next two games, they need to figure out what kind of offense they want to be, and they need to do it fast.