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Something Different: A Strong-Side Overload

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.

8:30 (3rd):

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.

  • Jay P

    I think you’re last sentence there summed it up nicely.

    Good defensive teams have to have a number of different looks they can throw at teams to try and confuse them and mix things up at least. None are going to work everytime, but you can’t let offenses get too comfortable. This is the NBA, these guys are good, and if you show them the same look everytime, their going to find the holes in it. This is just one example of ways they can mix it up, and keep teams guessing. I imagine we’ll see more and more of them as the new guys get more settled into the schemes, and the playoffs come around.

    Good stuff though.

  • http://celticshub.com Brendan Jackson

    This would work great for games against the Cavs and Hawks because KG can help off of Hickson and Smith. Like Birdman, the Cavs and the Hawks don’t want these guys shooting 15 footers. Also, I noticed that in the first example, the offense is pretty much setup for a perfect skip pass to the Afflalo with Birdman puttin a backscreen on Pierce.

  • Jason

    Not that I like touting other players, but let’s face it, LeBron is a master at cross-court skip passes. With a simple back screen and a skip pass, the Cavs would be stroking open 3s all game against this D. But I agree, wrinkles and different looks are nice things to have.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @Jason: I actually think the Cavs could shred this defense. LBJ is the best skip-passer in the league, and Varejao is a master cutter. And Hickson is emerging as a great cutter.

  • Jason

    Btw, while I did notice this new D when it was first unveiled, I actually had a stronger reaction to a new offensive wrinkle. As broken down here, the Cs have that new double-side screen Rondo runs off of. Well, against Denver they ran it a bunch of times except instead of squeezing Billups on his left and right, the screens both set screens to his right. When I first saw it, I thought of you guys and was expecting a breakdown. And after they ran it there 4th time or so I thought “Rondo’s getting walled off each time; this isn’t really working very well.” Then KG scored over Billups. “Ah, the point is to force a switch and a big mismatch. Then it has been working.”

    This brings to mind one of the reasons I really like the Cs. Both offensively and defensively they are really top notch at plays, schemes, adjustments, etc. In football, for instance, there is so much talk about 3-4 or 4-3, zone blitzes, max protection, spread offense, etc., etc. That is to say all the complicated play diagramming is part of lore of football. In basketball and the NBA in particular, often it’s just a star making something happen while 4 guys watch. Yes, everyone has plays, but the Cs I think are on another level, on both sides of the ball. They’ve had 3 years together so they can always be adding to their base package of schemes and plays. It’s really a joy to see such a finely tuned machine in action. I mean they really can just run any set, run it through option G if necessary and usually get a look they want. On D, they can throw you different looks, adjust, rotate and basically make any offense really work for points. (Both of these points btw require the caveat “when they apparently feel like it”) It’s really fun to see 5 guys play in concert like that. Very professional, just excellent commitment to studying, practicing and playing as a team. The coaches and the players all deserve credit for that.

  • Jason

    @Zach I read at the top that you mentioned showing it the Cavs, then I got about 3/4 through and was in a rush so I skipped to the bottom to write that comment. Guess I should have read the whole thing.

    What’s funny is that I didn’t even read your sentence when writing mine, yet it practically came out verbatim about LeBron’s skip passing and the open 3s. Also, Brandon beat me by about two minutes with things I was thinking. Again practically verbatim. Great minds I guess.

  • DRJ1

    This is exactly what CelticsHub does better than anyone else, btw. It’s a pleasure… and a lot of work, I know, so thanks!

    My question is: how is this new? Cs have been loading up the strong side since KG got here, haven’t they? What I missing here? Is the blatancy?

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    @DRJ1: I don’t think they do it to this extreme, hardly ever. This is Lakers-style D. That’s just my take, though.

  • DRJ1

    @Zach– Oh, ok… it’s the degree then.
    I guess they figured – correctly, as it turned out – that the Nuggets were ripe for it. As you noted, it would be very dangerous to do with certain other teams.

  • DRJ1

    Say, I wonder if Denver’s current relative weakness in the coaching position had anything to do with this decision.

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  • Berkcelt

    Great post. When I saw that it definitely stood out and reminded me of the Lakers defense. Interesting to think about how this will evolve. Thanks!

  • C

    5 on 5 at NBA level is too crowded,
    4 on 4 would be better in my opinion.
    But, of course, they won’t change.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    good stuff. agree that you can’t use this against the cavs really. bron is amazing at reading the D and always making the right decision…..he flicks a skip pass to mo/delonte/jamison for the open 3, hits varajao or jj on a weakside cut, or Z steps out for the midrange jumper. either way you lose. hats off to the man.

    i would use this against the hawks late in games cause jj always goes into pound the air out of the ball iso mode. thats why they blow leads, teams can cheat cause they know what is going to happen.

    also, i would use this early in the 1st and 3rd quarters against orlando. when wince settles for Js instead of taking it to the hole, orlando loses. and wince doesn’t need much incentive to get into his bad habits and settle, so this scheme can be effective. whereas bron makes the right play at anytime, wince is binary; either head down all the way to the bucket, or don’t make the effort.

  • dont_drink_the_koolaid

    btw: i’m pretty sure this is what the magic did when they lost to the hawks. it worked in that it helped force a bad (and predictable) jj dribble-shoot…..the flaw was it left lewis alone on the weak side to cover two guys on the rebound and smoove made them pay. it was still the right scheme, can’t really guard against everything.

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  • Shay

    This is the same thing the Lakers were doing against teams last year, when Kurt Rambis was their defensive coach…

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  • dres

    I know the C’s were playing at home, but let’s be honest here, KG would’ve been called for defensive 3 on all of those plays in any other building.

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