The Celtics narrowly edged out the Knicks on Sunday to take a 1-0 series lead. One of the biggest reasons why the Celtics were able to eek out the “W” is because Carmelo Anthony was rendered pretty much ineffective. His performance can best be measured as two parts “Carmelo trying to beat the Celtics by himself” and one part “Celtics defended Anthony very well.” The overall strategy the Celtics used to stymie Anthony’s production is similar to what teams will try to do against opponents with one superstar. The biggest difference, however, is that the Knicks have two superstars in Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Even with two superstars, the Celtics can shut down one of them and then play the “Dwight Howard” defense and let the other get his points. Luckily for the Cs, the Knicks’ aforementioned top dogs have some exploitable flaws and their supporting cast is not good enough to pick up the slack (especially with a questionable Chauncey Billups).
I’ll leave Stoudemire alone for now considering no one wearing white and green could defend him in Game 1 as he cruised for 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting (including these two points and these two points). Anthony on the other hand looked anything but super in his 15 point performance (5-for-18 from the field). Before I break down the film, let me be clear: Anthony’s performance had a lot to do with Anthony being Anthony. That being said, the Celtics did some things that allowed Anthony to feel like he had to take over the game himself (somehow he completely missed Stoudemire’s actual taking over of the game).
Exhibit A- Anthony Brings Up the Ball
In this example, Rajon Rondo denies Chauncey Billups the ball and forces the inbounds pass to go to Anthony. Carmelo is sure-handed enough to bring the ball up himself, but he probably shouldn’t. Unless Anthony is going to go one on five for the entire 24 seconds than he’ll need a couple of passes before he can get into an isolation set and have the excuse of a dwindling shot clock to hoist up a contested jumper.
Anthony swings the ball to the left side and it eventually winds up in the hands of Landry Fields. Billups makes a half-hearted cut and doesn’t even bother trying to post up Rondo. With no reason to pass to Billups, Fields swings the ball back to Anthony. By the time it gets to Anthony, there’s ten seconds left on the clock and he has multiple lanes to drive to the basket due to the Celtics all out denial of the Knicks’ wing players.
Should Anthony have driven right, Kevin Garnett would have helped and Stoudemire would have been in prime position for a cut to basket showcasing a little two-man game these superstars should be playing. If he had driven left, he could have drawn Ray Allen and Fields, a capable three point shooter, would have been open for a three.
If neither Garnett or Allen helped, it would force Jermaine O’Neal to step up, try and block the shot, take a charge, or foul Anthony. Even if O’Neal steps up and cuts off Anthony’s penetration, Ronny Turiaf is wide open for a layup. If none of the Celtics help, then Anthony has a lane to the basket. So many options. So what does Anthony do? Pull up from 26 feet away and bricks a three.
As much as this appears to be exclusively Anthony’s fault, a fair amount of credit should go Paul Pierce’s way for his one-on-one defense. Pierce forced Anthony way outside the three point arc and the Celtics’ defenders didn’t overreact to all of the space. The help defenders could have easily been caught in no man’s land but with Anthony so far away from his teammates and the basket, many of Melo’s ancillary options would be difficult to get the ball to and would allow Celtics’ defenders the ability to recover.
If Anthony had received the ball with 15 seconds instead of 10, a direct consequence of Rondo’s initial inbounds pass denial, Anthony would have had more time to make a better decision (or he would have shot this with 15 seconds left).
Exhibit B- Full Court Pressure
In this example Rondo does something similar to Exhibit A although this time instead of denying the inbounds pass, he pressures Toney Douglas all the way up the court. Douglas has to respect Rondo’s long arms and ability to poke balls away so he goes into all out protect-mode and backs Rondo across half court. This pressure takes some precious seconds off the shot clock and after a few passes, Anthony eventually forces another bad long distance shot.
When the shot clock gets down to 10, something must go off in Anthony’s head that makes him shoot the ball. That or he confuses the “tens” and “ones” place in some sort of digital clock dyslexia. I have no idea but I do know that he takes two terrible shots with a little less than half a shot clock stemming from Rondo’s initial on-ball pressure.
Exhibit C- Ball Denial
The Celtics are the best in the business at defending the pick-and-roll, particularly in their ability to hedge and prevent the ball handler from turning the corner. Here, the Celtics do a great job of both hedging the Anthony screen and denying Anthony the ball. An underrated aspect of this clip is that the Celtics force Anthony to set the screen far enough above the three point arc that a Douglas dribble pull up isn’t an option. Eventually the ball winds up in the hands of Billups’ who has to take a contested three.
In the second part of this clip, the Knicks get a second chance on a loose ball foul underneath. In this fresh shot clock, it’s almost as if Anthony was so frustrated by the previous play’s ball denial that he’s afraid he’ll never touch the ball again and takes maybe the worst shot of the game. Credit a threatening Ray Allen for preventing Anthony from going left but also look at Pierce’s one-on-one defense. Anthony uses a series of dribble moves and head fakes and Pierce doesn’t bite on any of them.
It’s pretty evident that Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups have not been fully acclimated to Mike D’Antoni’s offense. He wants his teams to shoot early in the shot clock, but he still wants those shots to be good –or at the very least open.
The Celtics would be wise to continue to employ some of these tactics going forward. Given the injury to Billups, Douglas is going to be the primary ball handler and that means Rondo (for the first time ever perhaps) will have a size advantage. Look for him to put more full court pressure on Douglas like he did in Exhibit B.
The Celtics also showed that despite Anthony claiming “every time I caught it, they loaded the side up, they shifted court. I missed some shots I normally make” they didn’t exclusively load up the strong side. They didn’t do it because they didn’t have to. The Celtics load up the on the strong side for superstar isolation plays in order to dissuade that player from getting by his opponent and getting to the rim. Or they do it to force the ball out of the star’s hands. It’s pretty evident that it would take the jaws of life for Anthony to give up the ball and you can see in the clips above that the Celtics did not overload the strong side (save for maybe Rondo in Exhibit B) and Anthony still took a contested jumper. In other words, he did what the Celtics wanted him to do without the Celtics having to make him do it.
If the Celtics can continue to see this, it bodes well for their chances to come out of this series unscathed. All of this could change tonight, of course.