How The Celtics Defense Found Its Form To Force A Game 6

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Despite canning 39.1 percent of their long balls, shooting 56.4 percent on twos, and collecting 29.4 percent of their own misses, the Miami Heat produced their fourth-worst offensive rating of the playoffs (107.4) in their Game 5 loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday night. The root of that outcome was Boston’s scheme, which successfully slowed the Heat for the second time in three days to push this series back to Miami for Saturday’s pivotal Game 6.

The Celtics implemented some important tweaks in Game 4 and continued to do so again in Game 5. They’re varying their approach against Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, both of whom have struggled the past two outings after dominating the majority of Miami’s three victories.

With Gabe Vincent sidelined because of a sprained left ankle, the Heat’s already tenuous guard depth suffered another blow. They’re down to Kyle Lowry among rotational guards after Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo suffered injuries earlier in the playoffs. This series, Lowry has basically been a complete nonfactor since his second quarter explosion in Game 1. He scored 15 points that night and has scored 17 on 35.4 percent true shooting in the four ensuing games.

All of this is to preface that Boston’s defense played exceptionally well Thursday, but Vincent’s absence looms large and left a sizable impact in Miami’s offensive flexibility and potency. In Game 4, the Celtics were determined to stymie Adebayo on the roll. They brought aggressive nail or backside help, deployed traditional drop coverage, sat on his dives inside and empowered ball-handlers like Vincent and Lowry to beat them downhill. Butler even scored unabated on one instance.

Earlier in the series, meanwhile, the ball-screen defense lasered in on the conductor.

With Lowry ineffective and every other ball-handler unavailable, Miami frequently turned to the Butler-Bam pick-and-roll. This time, though, Boston amended its concepts, primarily switching the action or playing near the level of the pick. Both schemes were intended to close down Butler’s space from midrange. The game-plan deviated considerably from either play above. Al Horford and Jayson Tatum aren’t defending Butler and Adebayo like that anymore.

When Horford was the big man involved, the Celtics typically switched. When it was Robert Williams III, they toggled between drop a little higher up and switching. If Butler parlayed the drop into a switch, they were comfortable there as well. Williams’ become significantly more adept and less timid on switches against Butler than Game 1 of this series, when he invited Butler to waltz into open midrange pull-ups. That growth and his mobility on the perimeter are instrumental in the defensive turnaround the past two games.

During the third quarter of Game 5, the Heat repeatedly dialed up the Butler-Adebayo connection on the left side of the floor to no avail. The Celtics kept switching the action and curtailing the star duo. On a couple occasions, Butler fed Adebayo in the post to attack a perceived mismatch, which resulted in two of Miami’s 16 giveaways. Over the past two games the Heat posted their highest turnover rates of the playoffs (19.8 percent in Game 5, 17.6 percent in Game 4). A few careless decisions are contributing, but Boston’s defense is largely responsible.

Butler and Adebayo combined to shoot 13-of-25 from the floor in 66 minutes. They scored 30 points on 54.3 percent true shooting. That’s not efficient scoring, but the real kicker is the limited volume. Miami’s offense will stall if its two stars only attempt 25 shots in 66 minutes when Vincent and Herro are out while Lowry’s face is being plastered on milk cartons. Some of that is on Butler and Adebayo. A lot of it should be credited to how Boston corralled their two-man game.

Part of the issue is Butler and Adebayo are like-sized players. It’s something the Celtics encounter trying to leverage their own stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, in actions together because defenses can often switch the play without fear of surrendering an advantage. When Butler tosses the entry passes and serves as the strong-side release valve, his man can also double Adebayo if there is a mismatch inside, unbothered by Butler potentially burying a quick trigger triple on the kickout pass.

All of that changes if Adebayo is flanked by Lowry, Vincent, or Herro. That’s not a slight at Butler. Rather, it’s merely an acknowledgement of the contrasting skillsets and physical profiles those guards offer that stress the defense in manners different than Butler next to Adebayo.

As an aside, Butler has taken a liking to hunting Derrick White on switches all series. He’s bested the All-Defensive Team guard intermittently and isn’t being shut down by White. But it’s certainly been a matchup the Celtics are content with and not one they’re frantic about preventing. White’s held his ground, forcing some passes and staying down on tempting shot fakes.

For much of Game 1 and stretches of later contests, the Celtics hugged tightly to Miami’s bevy of off-ball shooters and elected to give Adebayo and Butler ample room inside the arc. That did not prove effective. Adebayo saw the freedom to rock out as a face-up scorer and flourished.

In Game 5, the majority of that space was extinguished. Adebayo is a highly talented and proficient static passer, but runs into problems on the move. Boston has recognized that and is flooding him once he puts the ball on the deck. It’s also stationing more help on the weakside to make rounding the corner arduous. He coughed up six turnovers and scored 16 points on 15 shots without any free-throw attempts in Game 5. That’s a successful showing for the Celtics.

Miami’s outside stroke wasn’t a hindrance to the offense. Over 39 percent beyond the arc is very good. Its volume, however, was a hindrance. Only 25.7 percent of the Heat’s field goals were threes. That’s their third-lowest rate of the season and lowest since Feb. 8 against the Indiana Pacers. Usually, the Celtics have switched the off-ball screens called for Max Strus. They’ve run into some roadblocks doing so, though. On Thursday, they decided to shy away from switching and instead chose to fight over the top. He was constantly extended out on the catch and rarely saw the requisite real estate to launch before a dribble. Brown’s efforts on him were vital.

Meanwhile, Marcus Smart, who authored a masterful two-way game (watch this!), was a menace defending Duncan Robinson. The sharpshooting wing hoisted 10 shots, but only three of them were long balls. Before Game 5, the most two-pointers Robinson had tallied this year between the regular season and postseason was four and he’d never posted a three-point rate as low as Thursday’s .300.

Smart and Tatum routinely top-locked Robinson, blew up any dribble handoffs sought by Adebayo and funneled him inside the arc. Smart’s physicality and discipline shone through. Tatum’s communication and length popped. The Robinson-Adebayo partnership has lit up Boston periodically in this series. It certainly didn’t in Game 5.

Last season, the Celtics boasted the NBA’s top-ranked defense and remained quite stingy in the playoffs. This year, they finished second in defensive rating, but were clearly steps below 2021-22 levels. That regression has manifested throughout their bumpy postseason run.

Game 5 resembled the ways of old. Smart stamped his mark everywhere and looked like a Defensive Player of the Year winner. The cohesion was crisp. The switches were livelier. The schemes were multifaceted and fluid. That’s the defense they rode to the Finals. If they want a return trip, they’ll have to keep the renaissance alive for two more games.

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