Heat vs Celtics: Pick and Roll defense

(The Miami Heat used a similar type of “attack trap” shown here in last years Finals during last night’s game against the Celtics. Besides Rondo driving to the hoop, the Celtics had no answer.)




The first game of the new NBA season had a lot to talk about. Ray Allen playing his first game with Miami against his old team and performing very well (both on offense and defense) will be a popular story. The Heat going up by double digits when LeBron was healthy then the Celtics coming back when he was in the locker room will also be written about. Many more will talk about how the Heat are unstoppable and there is no way they don’t repeat as champions. After watching the game one thing stood out to me above all else, pick and roll defense. That was the difference in the game, and will tell you all you need to know about the two teams this early in the season.

Schematically how each team defends each other on the pick and roll is radically different. The Heat blitzed every pick and roll, meaning that both defenders involved (the on the ball defender and the defender of the screener) run at the ball to stop his progress. In the Heat’s case they are so aggressive that they actually trap the ball regularly. In the first game of the season this defense caused 15 turnovers and numerous contested shots.
From the description and results of the blitz pick and roll defense you would assume that every team would play this type of defense. The problem with that is not every team can. The Celtics have less speed and quickness than the Heat. The Heat use their speed to get out on the ball and know that they can use it to recover if beaten as well (through help defense). The Celtics would be completely unsuccessful playing the pick and roll as aggressively against the Heat. The Heat would use their superior speed to go right by an aggressive trap from slower Celtics players.

Out of necessity the Celtics went under screens. The screener’s defender is supposed to stop progress until the on the ball defender can recover under the screen and guard the ball. This defense is good in that it has more room for error, both defenders keep the ball in front of them so are more able to react to it (where if the trapping defense is employed but broken two defenders are now behind the play unable to help). The problem with this defense is it leads to open jumpers when the screen defenders give the ball a cushion. In this game the Heat used this cushion to bring the ball closer to the hoop. This caused the other Celtics defenders to help, which create open shots on offense.
To simplify it, the Heat are faster so they ran an attacking defense in which they often dictated the Celtics offense. The Celtics were forced to play a defense in which the Heat dictated their own offense. For the Celtic defense to be great they need to be “on a string” in which the entire defense moves as one, this defense comes from continuity. Continuity is also important in the Heat’s defense but can be masked by unbridled athleticism. The difference in the game is the Heat showed athleticism and continuity on defense where the Celtics didn’t show often enough (pun intended).

-Evan

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