Going into Game 5, everyone wondered: If Jameer Nelson remains aggressive on the screen/roll, how would the Celtics cope defensively? Boston can’t possibly collapse on Nelson and guard all of Orlando’s other weapons, can they?
No, they can’t. If Nelson continues to get in the lane, the Celtics have to help and rotate in a way that leaves the Magic with the option Boston considers the least threatening. When the Magic’s screen/roll attack is working, someone is going to get a decent look. No defense can prevent that, at least not every time down the floor. So the question becomes: Which Orlando player do you want taking that decent look?
Early in Game 5, the Celtics clearly wanted that player to be Matt Barnes.
That strategy makes sense, considering Barnes is a below-average three-point shooter on a team stacked with good perimeter shooters. It’s the mathematically sound choice.
But Barnes hurt the C’s early by hitting a corner three and a three from the top of the arc, a spot from which Barnes hit only 3 three-pointers in 16 attempts all season, according to NBA.com Hot Spots:
Check out how far from Barnes Pierce has already drifted when Dwight Howard sets a screen for Jameer Nelson:
And this is before Howard has even started his roll to the hoop! By the time Nelson actually passes to Barnes, Pierce is all the way down at the dotted line. You can see that Tony Allen also sags down into the paint off of J.J. Redick on the left wing, but a) he doesn’t give Redick as much space as Pierce gives Barnes; and b) Barnes is a simple, short pass from Nelson, while getting the ball to Redick requires a difficult and long skip pass.
This shows me the C’s have made a choice to treat Barnes as the least dangerous Orlando player.
Here’s another play from the 1st quarter, this time with Ray Allen on Barnes:
This is another Nelson/Howard pick-and-roll on the right side, with Barnes once again filling the space at the top of the arc as the nearest kick-out target for Nelson. And watch again as Barnes’ defender (Ray) sags well below the foul line to help on Howard:
This time, Barnes uses Ray Allen’s momentum against him by driving to the hoop and setting up Howard for a lob that results in a KG foul.
Here’s another example, this time on a Lewis/Nelson pick-and-roll on the left wing with Barnes spotting up on the right side:
Pierce cuts off Nelson and gives Barnes plenty of room:
For whatever reason, Nelson doesn’t pass the ball to Barnes here—perhaps because he understands that Barnes taking a three from the wing is a low percentage option compared to what the Magic might get by resetting and running something else.
Barnes finished the first quarter with 6 points on 2-of-5 shooting, and he did just enough to punish Boston for so obviously helping off of him. Questions for Game 6 include:
1) Do the C’s use this strategy again?
2) Can Barnes hurt Boston again?
3) If he can’t, how quickly will Stan Van Gundy pull him for someone else?
4) How does Boston adjust when Barnes is off the floor?
The very fact that we are having a discussion about which Orlando player Boston might choose to leave open as a last resort shows how much the dynamic of this series has changed. Orlando’s offense is dictating to Boston’s defense.
We can only hope the terms of engagement change in Boston tonight.