We saw the C’s do something on defense against Denver they rarely do: overload the strong side in a semi-zone, so that three Boston players were guarding two Denver players on the strong side.
It’s a strategy teams use now and then to deter star wing players, such as Carmelo Anthony, from getting to the rim. The Eastern Conference has the best wing player on Earth (LeBron) plus Joe Johnson, so it’s natural to wonder whether the C’s will break this defense out for a few possessions should they face the Cavs or the Hawks in the post-season.
Let’s check out some examples from the Denver game and see how they worked.
KG starts this possession guarding Bird Man straight up at the top of the key as Anthony dribbles on the right wing. But as Anderson cuts to the left baseline, KG leaves him and slides over to the right edge of the paint:
The way this possession unfolds leads me to guess that the C’s coaching staff gave KG the freedom to play a zone-ish help defense when he felt it was necessary.
And you can see why he might have felt it was necessary here. The C’s are caught in bad match-ups against Denver’s two best players. Ray Allen is guarding Billups in the right corner and Rondo is checking Melo. KG is basically serving as a third Boston defender against two Denver players.
You can see the sacrifice this entails on the weak side. Paul Pierce has left his man (Arron Afflalo) and shifted down onto Bird Man. Perk is responsible for JohanPetro, and both Pierce and Perk will have to make snap rotation decisions should Denver swing the ball.
Instead, the Nuggets almost make things easy for Boston here. Melo cuts into the middle, allowing Pierce to shift back onto him while KG slides over to Andersen.
Billups hits Afflalo at the top of the key, and Afflalo and Petro run a screen/roll. With all of the options on the court, the C’s are probably thrilled Denver goes with Afflalo/Petro screen/roll. It fails, though a Nash-ian passer may have been able to thread the ball to Bird Man there.
The C’s play the same sort of defense again on the next possession (7:45, 3rd), when KG leaves Bird Man to serve as the roving third defender on the left wing against Billups and Melo.
This time, KG decides to help even though the C’s have the “right” defensive match-ups in place.
Melo comes over to set a pick just to Chauncey’s right if Billups wants it. Rondo obviously had a strategy going in for how to play against this set. He opens up his stance and positions himself directly above Melo, so that Billups can’t really use the screen to dribble toward the middle of the floor. Rajon would much rather have Billups dribble left, where KG is waiting to help.
Billups goes where the C’s want him to go and takes a pull-up J with KG in his face and Rondo being a pest behind him. It’s a decent look, but a) it’s contested; b) Rondo may have fouled him from behind; and c) shots from that floater/mid-range area (ESPN’s play-by-play has this as a missed 15-footer) are the lowest percentage shots in the NBA, according to Hoopdata. Billups is shooting 39 percent on shots from between 10 and 15 feet, which is about league average. You can bet the C’s know this.
Now, the strong side zone isn’t a foolproof defense, especially for a team that doesn’t use it often. (The Lakers are fantastic at it and have used it a lot the last two seasons). Players have to shift assignments mid-possession, and they can get confused or lose track of what they are supposed to be doing if they’re not used to this style of play.
Here’s a possession on which the strong side overload failed (4:30, 2nd):
There’s no ad-libbing on this possession. KG goes into strong-side overload mode instantly by leaving Birdman and hanging out at the left elbow while Melo dribbles on the left wing. And when Denver swings the ball to the right side? KG slides over there and plays the same overload role in a new spot. Bird Man cuts along the baseline to the left side, perhaps hoping to drag KG with him. But KG instead plants himself on the baseline to deter Billups from driving on Ray Allen. (By the way: Do you think the C’s were concerned with Allen guarding Billups?):
The Nuggets create some confusion here, whether it’s by design or blind luck. Nene and Melo both move around the paint below J.R. Smith (who is at the top of the arc), and you can see Pierce, KG and Rondo sort of shifting and glancing around until things settle down and everyone finds a man to guard straight up. KG takes Nene, Pierce defends Melo and Rondo jumps back onto Smith.
Except Rondo, as happens sometimes, still seems sort of mesmerized by the ball and stops paying attention to Smith. Smith cuts into the lane and is halfway to the hoop before Rondo realizes Smith has him burned.
The Nuggets don’t really beat the strong-side overload here. The C’s are back in a straight man-to-man when the breakdown happens. But one of the worries about a defense like this is that once a ball hawk like Rajon goes into rove mode, perhaps it’s hard to get him back into man-to-man mode.
So: Will we see this defense again? I think we probably will—if the C’s face the Cavs or Hawks in the playoffs. That said, a healthy Cavs team is much better-equipped to deal with this defense than the Denver team (missing Kenyon Martin) we saw Wednesday. Anderson Varejao has become a master cutter, and J.J. Hickson is learning every day how to move off the ball and find space to receive a pass. And no one in the league, save for maybe Chris Paul and Steve Nash, can find those guys as precisely as LeBron can. And nobody in the league—not even CP3 or Nash—throws a cross-court skip pass like LeBron. And Antawn Jamison can hit an open corner three, even if his three-point shooting is generally overrated.
This defense may have worked against a team featuring Bird Man and Johan Petro together, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work against the Cavs.
That said, it’s always good to have a variety of looks to throw at teams.