“Film Room” is a bi-weekly column that highlights recent performances by breaking down basketball and football tape.
The Boston Celtics lost the first two games of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Miami Heat for a few reasons. Most importantly, Miami was the hungrier team, beating Boston to loose balls and rebounds, especially in that Game 2 that led to Marcus Smart’s locker room tirade.
But the Heat were also out-executing the Celtics. Miami has been the best team throughout these playoffs at running its offense with precision for 48 minutes, but it was Miami’s 2-3 zone defense that really befuddled Boston. The Heat used that tactic to make double-digit comebacks in each of the first two contests, and it really seemed that Boston had no answer.
However, Boston staved off the virtual death sentence that is a 3-0 series deficit with a 117-106 victory Saturday night. Boston’s two young star wings — Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum — keyed the Celtics' response to Miami’s zone by getting out in transition and attacking the Heat’s weaker defenders with more purpose.
The best way to beat a great zone is to not let it set up. Boston’s key runs, especially an 11-2 spurt to gain a 13-point lead at the half, came from Brown’s defense creating fast break points. Brown was an absolute menace, racking up three steals and a block that led to a thunderous Tatum slam.
You’ll notice that Tatum and Brown are the ones creating and finishing each of these plays; those two drive so much of Boston’s two-way ability. But the Celtics also got transition looks from their team defense, although it was again Brown and Tatum turning these stops into points.
Of course, the Celtics had to improve at finding the right areas of the Heat’s zone to attack, and they did so by targeting Miami’s weaker defenders.
That may seem like an obvious conclusion, but there’s a reason Miami’s defense is so tough to crack. First, they put their two worst defenders at the outside bottom slots instead of the traditional approach of putting the third- and fourth-biggest players in those spots; that way, these players can use the sideline and baseline as extra defenders, making it a more difficult position to attack from.
This lineup is illustrated below: You can see Miami’s two smallest players on the court, Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro, manning the corners while Derrick Jones and Andre Iguodala play the guard spots at the top.
The second issue is that Miami doesn’t have any particularly bad defenders. Dragic, Herro and Duncan Robinson are all targeted by opposing offenses, but all three are smart and hard-working on the defensive end.
However, it’s still a much better idea to attack those guys instead of Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder or Bam Adebayo, and Boston found the best ways to do so in Game 3 by involving those weaker defenders in their actions instead of trying to beat them in isolation. The Celtics ran their offense much more efficiently Saturday night because of this adjustment, as evidenced by Boston’s near 59% shooting when facing a zone and 60 points in the paint.
The clips below show how Boston put Robinson behind the eight ball in its actions.
In the first play, the night’s best example of Boston extorting the zone, Robinson fights over Brown’s weak side screen thinking he needs to get to Kemba Walker. Because Marcus Smart cuts to the wing, drawing Dragic and forcing Adebayo to stay near Daniel Theis in the right corner, Brown can slip to the basket for the easy dunk.
In the second clip, which starts in man but resembles a zone because Robinson stays low on the handoff switch, Boston gets Robinson on Tatum instead of Butler. This makes it much easier for Tatum to attack the rim, and because Adebayo switched out to Smart, there is no rim protection to hinder Tatum’s layup.
The Celtics took a similar approach in targeting Miami’s smaller players without reverting to stagnant isolation.
In the first play, Brown cuts through the middle to the left wing, overloading that side and forcing Dragic to match up with him. Walker shifts over enough to keep Crowder from sliding over to cut off Brown’s drive, and Brown uses his size advantage to penetrate the lane. This forces Adebayo to slide over, creating a wide-open corner three for Grant Williams.
The second play is similar in focus, but this time Tatum is part of a double ball screen that forces Herro to check him. Herro has to help down on Theis until Kelly Olynyk recovers, allowing Tatum to attack on the closeout and use his height to score over the top of the shorter defender. Again, each of these plays is created by at least one of Brown and Tatum.
Here’s a good example of the intersection of Boston’s two adjustments: Following the rebound, Brown uses his strength advantage to seal Robinson under the basket. Tatum sends a halfcourt pass before Miami can collapse into its zone, leading to an and-one.
Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra will definitely make some tweaks to combat the Celtics' adjustments, but Boston showed a much-improved understanding of how to beat the zone. As long as the Celtics continue to look for fast break opportunities and use off-ball movement to create ideal matchups, Boston will have an easier time scoring the rest of this series.
Video from Tomasz Kordylewski YouTube channel.
“Film Room” runs every other Tuesday.