The Celtics had a plan Sunday for how to defend a Manu Ginobili high screen/roll. It didn’t work, obviously, but I’m not sure that was because the plan was flawed or because Manu Ginobili is one of the 10 or 15 best basketball players alive when he’s healthy. I’m leaning toward the latter.
The C’s have a pretty standard way of defending screen/rolls: The guy guarding the ball-handler (this is usually Rajon Rondo) fights over the screen while the big man guarding the screener either slides over to cut off penetration or jumps out to try and force the ball-handler away from the basket while Rondo recovers from the screen.
To my eyes, the C’s approach with Ginobili was essentially a super-exaggerated version of this. As soon as the man guarding Manu knew a screen was coming, he would jump to one side of the screener, positioning himself almost perpendicular to Ginobili. The idea, it appeared, was to force Ginobili the other direction, where the man guarding the screener had already sagged back to cut off penetration.
We see this on a possession from about the 10:00 mark of the 2nd quarter, with Tony Allen guarding Manu:
So, yeah. Manu was unfazed.
Here’s a still shot from that clip that illustrates the strategy I’m talking about:
DeJuan Blair has just set his screen, but Tony Allen has already jumped the screen, opened his stance and shifted over to Ginobili’s right side. The message on this play seems to be: Please go left. I don’t think the Celtics actually wanted Ginobili to go left, since he’s left-handed. But I think they wanted certainty that if he were going to drive, it was going to be in one direction, and the Celtics were going to have someone there waiting.
That someone was Glen Davis. Manu was not intimidated.
Here’s an example with the same four players in the same four roles. Watch as Tony Allen again jumps to Ginobili’s right before Blair sets the screen, in effect taking one direction away from Manu:
Same defense, another bad result for Boston.
Here’s another example from late in the 2nd quarter, this time with Rajon guarding Manu and Kevin Garnett guarding the screener (Tim Duncan):
This play illustrates what can happen when the man guarding the screener sags far back to contain Manu’s penetration: If the screener is a good jump-shooter, you’re vulnerable to a pick-and-pop.
But let’s take a closer look at this play. Almost as soon as Ginobili gets the ball, Rondo positions himself to take away Manu’s left hand and points for someone to take the other side:
It’s a decent strategy, but it doesn’t work—partly because Duncan nails Rondo with a solid screen. It appears that Rajon is expecting Antonio McDyess (being defended by Sheed on the right edge of the paint, almost in Rondo’s field of vision) to set the pick. Duncan may have caught Rondo by surprise by coming from behind him and looping around to set the screen. With Rondo in trouble, KG has to pay more attention to Manu and hold his attention there a beat longer than he’d probably like:
The result is a pretty easy look for Timmy.
The Spurs burned the C’s with this same play on the other side of the floor about two minutes later. Watch again as Rajon clearly takes one side and points for someone else to take the other:
Here’s Manu as a basketball Picasso burning the C’s again, this time with Ray Allen guarding Manu and Sheed guarding Duncan:
Ray doesn’t have a lot of time to prep for this, but it appears—at least to me—that in the limited time he does have, he opens up his stance and moves to Ginobili’s left:
This still shot looks bad. Ray is standing to Manu’s left, and, if the C’s followed the strategy they used in the other clips we’ve seen, Sheed should be standing to Manu’s right, so that the C’s have both sides covered. Except Sheed also seems to be overplaying to Manu’s left.
So Manu does what any smart player would do: He takes what the defense is giving him and starts a move to his right as Allen and Sheed scramble to catch up:
But here’s where Manu gets smart. He doesn’t just charge down the right side of the paint. Maybe that’s because he sees Rajon Rondo creeping toward the middle of the floor and KG waiting near the basket. For whatever reason, Manu takes his time and waits for Ray and Sheed to get all their momentum going to Manu’s right. At that moment, Manu stops and takes one dribble to his left. It’s hard to capture in a still shot, but that one dribble freezes Ray, Sheed and KG; they all stop and shift their weight back to Ginobili’s left. You can sort of see it here, as Manu takes that one lefty dribble:
Now Manu has everyone where he wants them. He switches directions again, crosses over to his right and bolts to the rim for the lay-up.
It’s beautiful basketball, really.
This is not to say Boston’s strategy failed every time. Here’s one possession from the 2nd quarter where it worked:
Why does it work here and not the other times? My take (and only my take; feel free to disagree): Rondo doesn’t take quite the same exaggerated position to one side of Ginobili here. He shades slightly to Manu’s left but mostly stays in front of him:
This looks a lot like Boston’s normal screen/roll defense, doesn’t it? Rondo is able to get through the screen without losing much ground, which means Sheed doesn’t have to drift too far from Duncan for too long. The result: Manu and TD are both covered, so Manu has to launch a tough cross-court pass to Richard Jefferson. Pierce rejects the corner three.
To conclude, I want to make this clear: I’m not saying the Celtics tried some radical defense that is worlds different from what they normally do. It’s not like they played a zone or something.
But they made an adjustment because of Ginobili’s presence; I prefer the idea of Ginobili adjusting to Boston’s defense, but this isn’t 2008 and Manu is awesome.
Either way, in the last week, we’ve seen pretty strong evidence that the C’s are going to experiment with superstar defenses when they face superstars.