The NBA Playoffs are like a giant game of chess, with tactical strategies being levied both ways throughout the course of a best-of-seven battle. The final four teams standing all have a good amount of versatility on offense and defense; they can win a game in a variety of ways. That should make for some fantastic tactics and tricks, especially aimed at taking away the incredible star power that every team boasts.
In the Eastern Conference, the No. 8 seed Miami Heat have made another improbable run to the conference finals. Carried predominantly by star performances from Jimmy Butler, the Heat have found their offensive identity and started to knock down shots while humming on defense with merciless precision and team-wide synergy. They’re dangerous, and have always been a difficult matchup for these Boston Celtics.
But Boston, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, far overwhelms in terms of star power and shot-making. There’s a great deal of experience for such a young team, and plenty of capable offensive pieces to destroy whatever tricks Spoelstra has up his sleeve.
While both teams can get hot in a hurry, it will be fascinating to watch how they dare their opponent to beat them. For the Celtics, stopping Butler could entail throwing some different lineup varieties out there and committing to keeping him out of the lane. For the Heat, stopping Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown might mean going toward a defense that has won them games against the C’s before.
Boston Celtics: Peel Switching
The series with the Philadelphia 76ers was changed in the later stages as the Boston Celtics moved away from a traditional switch on ball screens and toward a concept known as peel switching. In a traditional switch, the two men involved in guarding the ball screen simply exchange assignments. Against Philly, with MVP Joel Embiid on the floor, such a strategy would leave smaller players like Marcus Smart or Derrick White susceptible to a mismatch.
Peel switching was Boston’s counter, and it is much more creative and more difficult to get done. Instead of the man guarding the screener taking the ball, a third defender (stationed closest to the action) will fly in and take the ball handler, usually at or around the nail hole. The original defender will peel out to the weak side and take the third man’s assignment. It looks a little bit like this:
Boston has length and quickness 1 thru 4, or 1 thru 3 in lineups where they play Al Horford and Rob Williams together. If Kevin Love is not on the floor and playing the 4, preventing one of them from ending up on Miami’s litany of smaller players would be a sound strategy for Boston. The peel switch was really only designed to work against James Harden, getting the ball out of Philly’s top perimeter target. Boston wouldn’t dare use it when another handler was involved in the action, instead taking their chances on getting through the screen.
Often, it’s more of a read for the Celtics — if Jaylen Brown gets hung up on the screen chasing Harden over the top, they’ll send help to the nail and have Jaylen peel out to the wing. That’s a really difficult play to read on the fly, but the ends justify the means if it helps take away an opponent’s top option.
Against the Heat, this would work against Jimmy Butler, Miami’s superstar who wills the Heat to victory and should be the focal point of Boston’s defense. If traditional switching doesn’t keep him from getting to his spots, a more devious strategy such as this makes a ton of sense.
You can also see from many of those clips the result of so aggressively switching at the nail in that fashion: an open shot on the wing, routinely for Tyrese Maxey. The Celtics have to be really careful not to over-use this strategy, especially considering there are great spot-up threats on the Heat who can punish them with open jumpers.
There were several possessions where the C’s would be at the nail early and Harden would simply throw a direct pass to Maxey in the slot. If this is Kyle Lowry or Gabe Vincent, who are decent at attacking the lane and making plays happen, the C’s have to be careful about overdoing their early work to be ready for the peel switch.
Peel switching cannot be done on every possession — it really depends on both the location of the ball screen (leading toward the nail and the middle of the floor) and the placement of the rest of the offensive personnel (somebody on the opposite wing). The Heat are a really good shooting team on their own and likely won’t have the same non-shooter the Celtics can roam off of as they did with PJ Tucker. I’m curious just how the Celtics plan on guarding ball screens against the Heat — particularly those that involve Butler.
Miami Heat: The Changeup Zone
Let’s get straight to the point. The Boston Celtics are quite big. The Miami Heat are smaller. If the Heat are struggling to guard their yard in one-on-one circumstances, head coach Erik Spoelstra is not shy about switching to a zone.
Miami’s version of a zone, designed to keep Bam Adebayo near the basket while avoiding a defensive three seconds call, is essentially a 4-around-1 point zone that requires a lot of movement and activity from everyone not named Bam. They fly around and challenge shots, try to play passing lanes to prevent extra pass scenarios that create open shots, and match up to player movement from the Celtics.
The zone has worked well against the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks, who suddenly went cold from deep. Against Boston, a team that shot the second-most three-pointers in the regular season and drilled them at a 37.7 percent clip, the zone is a little more risky. But back in their matchup on Jan. 23, the Heat used the zone quite a bit in the fourth quarter against the C’s in a comeback victory at home.
That game could serve as an important blueprint for the Heat in the conference finals.
One of the reasons the zone could work pretty well against Boston as a changeup and something Spoelstra sprinkles in there: it forces Joe Mazzulla to think and put his imprint on the game. Mazzulla has made nice adjustments between games and generally enables his players to go out there and win games, but he is at a massive disadvantage tactically against the best in-game coach in the NBA.
Look out for how and when the Heat go to their zone look. Most teams will do it to stop a run, when they don’t have great defensive personnel on the floor, out of a timeout to blow up a set play, or when there’s an absence of shooting from their opponent. Understanding why Spoelstra calls for the zone will help get a feel for who the flow of the game is favoring.