Magic Basketball brings us the stat of the series: In Games 1-3, the Magic ran 33 screen/rolls combined. They ran 43 alone in Game 4, a game in which the Magic scored about 104 points per 100 possessions, their best offensive rating of the series.
But as you’ve read all over the place by now, it wasn’t just the number of screen/rolls Orlando ran; it was how they ran them. The Eastern Conference phrase of the day was “staggered screen/s,” a play for which the C’s had no answer. Here are back-to-back possessions from the 3rd quarter in which the C’s tried two different strategies against the same play. Both failed. As you watch these clips, put yourselves in the shoes of Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau ask yourself: What could the C’s have done differently?
In Game 3, the Celtics played most Orlando screen/rolls by having the screener’s guy sag down to cut off Jameer Nelson’s driving lane. On the above play, the guy guarding Screener #1 (KG) doesn’t do that; instead, he jumps out above the screen to try and slow Nelson down while Rondo fights over the Rashard Lewis pick.
You see teams, including Boston, do this all the time. It’s sound strategy, even if it’s a departure from what Boston did so well in Game 3. But you risk the possibility that the two defenders can sort of get in each other’s way:
Here, Rondo manages to slide under KG and stay right on Nelson’s hip. Crisis #1 is averted.
But there’s Dwight Howard waiting on the right wing to set screen #2. And Howard’s guy, Kendrick Perkins, is not agile enough to jump out KG-style and rotate back to Howard. Perk leaves Howard alone and plants himself in the lane:
Trouble. You see how far Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are drifting off of their guys (Carter and Barnes) on the left side in anticipation of needing to help defuse a crisis in the paint. And a crisis is brewing: Rondo is far behind Nelson thanks to a nasty Howard screen, leaving Perk on an island with the job of somehow cutting of Nelson’s penetration.
I’m sitting here looking at this clip over and over again and wondering what Boston could have done differently here, and I’m coming up empty.
Do you send Rondo under the first screen? What about the second one?
Do you tell Perk to cut off the baseline at all costs, so that Nelson can’t turn the corner and come out the other side? If Perk manages that, does Nelson instead dribble into to the middle of the paint, draw Pierce and Carter further toward him and dish to one of his shooters on the weak side?
What about KG? Should he sag down on the first pick if Rondo is going over it?
That’s exactly what he tries on the Magic’s next possession:
Here’s a still that captures KG’s strategy against the first screen on this play:
You can see that KG has sagged down away from Lewis to clear a path for Rondo. You can also see that it really doesn’t matter. The second screen comes so quickly—and in so tight a space—that it basically takes KG out of the screen/roll action. Look at that photo: What are you supposed to do here? The use of Lewis as the initial screener is a nice wrinkle on Stan Van Gundy’s part; KG can’t just continue sliding down to help on Nelson, because that would mean leaving Lewis wide open for three. So he decides to stick with Lewis and let Perkins and Rondo take their chances against Nelson and Howard.
Which leaves us here:
Nelson has turned the corner, which leaves the Celtics with a series of bad options. You can see in this photo that Rondo has started to hold up in pursuit of Nelson. This seems like an obviously bad option, since it basically forces Boston to switch Perkins onto Nelson while Rondo takes (gulp) Howard. The Magic take advantage with an easy alley-oop.
Should Rondo have kept chasing? Should he have rushed out to Lewis and let KG take Howard, since Garnett is already right on Howard’s back?
I’m not sure what the answer is; no option is without its holes. That is why teams have been running the screen/roll since the league’s inception.
Here’s the thing, though: It wasn’t just the staggered screen that hurt Boston in Game 4. The regular screen/roll worked just fine:
For whatever reason, the Celtics had Kevin Garnett jump out more on screen/rolls than they did in earlier games. My hunch is this is because the Magic used Lewis as the screener for Nelson more often in Game 4, and if KG simply sags down and slides over onto Nelson, he risks leaving Lewis open for an easy pick-and-pop:
The C’s actually execute this decently. Garnett forces Nelson to take his turn a bit wider than Nelson would have otherwise, and Rondo is able to slither through that little space between Lewis and Garnett without losing too much ground.
But on Monday, Nelson needed only the tiniest bit of space in order to move forward. Give him credit. If he hesitates even slightly here, Rondo can recover, Garnett finds Lewis and the screen/roll has produced nothing. Nelson wasn’t decisive on screen/rolls in Games 1-3, and they were far less effective. That changed in Game 4.
What change will the C’s make in Game 5?