The Celtics trailed 30-19 against the Lakers after the 1st quarter, primarily because they turned the ball over seven times and had trouble dealing with LA’s strategy of having Kobe Bryant sag well off of Rajon Rondo.
And then Doc Rivers inserted a line-up of Rajon Rondo and four bench players and ran the same offensive set over and over again. It was a screen/roll set designed to help Rondo deal with LA’s strategy of daring him to shoot jumpers he did not want to shoot.
And it worked, over and over again. It’s something we should note, since the Celtics will have to find new ways to deal with this sort of defense as long as Rajon lacks confidence in his jump shot.
Let’s break down some examples:
It looks like a simple pick and roll, right?
Well, yes. But look at how it starts:
You don’t see a lot of sets that start like this, with a ball-handler beyond the top of the three-point arc and the other four players spaced equally along the baseline. I’m not sure what Doc liked about this set-up, but he started play after play this way during the 2nd quarter. Perhaps he thought that clearing the elbows and wings would give Rajon a little more space to start his drives and force the LA defenders to cover more distance if they chose to help on Rondo.
Whatever the thought process, the set worked. On almost every play that started from this set, Doc had Rasheed Wallace creep up from the baseline to set a screen for Rajon:
On this play, Rondo takes off before Sheed even sets his feet for the screen. The play still works; Rondo has a head start on his guy (Shannon Brown), and Sheed’s defender (Pau Gasol) has already shifted to his left to try and contain Rondo’s penetration. But Rondo appears to have started his drive before Gasol was ready, because he’s in prime position to blow by Pau. Thus we proceed to here:
Now we’re in good position. Rondo has indeed driven by Gasol, which has forced Lamar Odom (in the middle of the paint) to shift off of his man (Glen Davis) and help out on Rondo. In turn, Luke Walton (#4, with his back to us) has moved off of Tony Allen to cover Davis. Rondo and TA take care of things from there.
Just a standard screen/roll with one tweak—the everyone on the baseline starting point—to give the play a little extra oomph.
Let’s check out one more example involving Shannon Brown:
Once again, we start with Rondo at the top and everyone else on the baseline:
This time, though, Sheed’s screen hits its target:
Shannon Brown has turned flush into Rasheed Wallace’s chest. Not a good place to be. But notice how high Sheed has come for the screen. Rondo is still outside the three-point line, and Pau Gasol has plenty of time to get himself square to the basket, set his feet and prepare to deal with Rondo’s drive. Rondo’s going to have to get a bit more creative here. Let’s put the $55 million to work:
Rondo shows maturity here in slowing his dribble and surveying the scene instead of simply racing to the hoop without a plan. He has drawn the full attention of three guys and has three main options—kick to Tony Allen in the corner, turn and kick to Sheed at the top or find a way to get to the rim.
As you see here, he freezes Walton and Gasol by pausing and looking TA’s way. Having those guys flat-footed for a split second is all the advantage Rondo needs to accelerate and go to the hoop for an And-1.
I know what you’re saying: This play wouldn’t have worked had Kobe been in the game guarding Rondo instead of on the bench for his customary 2nd quarter rest.
The C’s heard you and continued running the same play when Kobe returned:
Things are definitely different with Kobe in the game. Here’s what things look like when Sheed sets his screen:
Kobe has played much further off of Rondo than did Brown, forcing Sheed to set the screen for Rajon at the foul line rather than out near the three-point line. This gives Rondo far less space to work with—less room to accelerate, less room to go north-south and get the defense on its heels. Gasol is in position to slide to his left and cut Rondo off just below the foul line.
This is the moment that determines the course of so many Boston possessions when teams play off of Rondo. He receives a screen at the foul line and has to try and do something with it. If he can continue his drive, good things happen. If he can’t—or if he decides that he can’t—the possession stalls.
Here’s a freeze frame of that moment:
Right now, Rondo is bottled up. Odom is cutting off the pass to Pierce on the baseline, and both Glen Davis (on the right wing) and Tony Allen (on the left wing) are well-covered. Only Sheed is open, and it’s asking a lot for Rondo to pass the ball over his head with Bryant standing right behind him.
But that’s the thing: Bryant is behind Rondo, on Rajon’s left hip. Gasol is there, but he’s flat-footed and positioned in a way—with his left foot behind his right foot—that gives Rondo an opening to squeeze past Gasol on the right.
And that’s what Rajon does:
What you can’t see here—but you can see in the clip—is that Rondo slows down with a little hesitation dribble. That does two things. First, it disrupts Gasol’s rhythm and momentum. That’s obvious.
But it also gives Pierce time to cut along the baseline to the other side of the rim and drag Odom there with him, removing the last obstacle between Rondo and the hoop. Now Rondo can turn the corner, go up for a lay-up or clear himself an angle for a kick-out pass to Sheed.
Still, this is not as easy as it was when Brown was guarding Rondo, huh? And as you’ll see from the last clip, Kobe’s ability to play further off of Rondo disrupted this set altogether a couple of times.
But the fact remains: Something about this set-up worked wonders on Sunday, and it’s something we should see again against teams that sag far off of Rondo.