The Celtics’ edge has been their defense, and it’s gotten better as the series has progressed. Just look at the decreasing number of points that the Lakers have scored from game-to-game: 102 in Game 1, then 94, 91, 89, and in Game 5 only 86.
Let’s take a close look at what defensive tactics Boston employs in various situations.
When Kobe Bryant has the ball and looks to use a high screen, his defender (either Ray or Tony Allen) might overplay to the screen-side. The idea is to force Kobe away from the screen and toward a help defender (usually Kevin Garnett). Or else delaying the S/R action by a couple of counts and thereby giving the baseline rotators that much more time to move into better help positions.
The Lakers can’t use Andrew Bynum to set high screens because his defender can either drop off and keep Kobe out of the paint, or make a long, hard show on the other side of the screen. Ditto for Pau Gasol, who has limited shooting range. Since Lamar Odom’s jumper is so erratic, he can likewise be ignored when he screens near the 3-point line. Ditto for Ron Artest.
That leaves shooters Derek Fisher and Kobe as the Lakers’ most effective S/R combo, one which Boston will combat by simply switching Rajon Rondo onto Kobe and looking to provide help in the lane.
If Rondo is screened, he has the quickness to tailgate his man and catch up before the corner is turned. Or else Rondo will chase his man down from behind and usually get a piece of the eventual shot or pass.
The screen-defender can also step above the screen and be ready to jump into a quick double team. Meanwhile, the interior defenders can halve the distance between any two offensive players in order to cover the screener-turned-roller. If the ball-handler must retreat in the face of the potential double team, the screen-defender can then quickly sink back into the lane and Boston’s 5-on-5 alignment is restored. This is another tactic that has been particularly effective against Kobe, limiting his penetrations and forcing him to shoot from beyond the arc.
The timing of a S/R can also be disrupted by the strong-side wing (like Paul Pierce) moving toward the business side of the screen.
The Celtics will go under most of these, daring all of the Lakers except Kobe to pull and shoot treys.
As a changeup, the hand-off defenders will also step out quickly to make the ball-receivers run circle routes.
As in 2008, Kendrick Perkins has the mass and the strength to move Pau Gasol a few feet farther out than where he originally wants to receive the ball. This means that Gasol either winds up shooting a jumper — which is A-OK with the Celtics — or needs an extra dribble or two to maneuver himself into prime scoring position. Because of his lower center of gravity, Glen Davis can do the same.
Rasheed Wallace has the length and the know-how to three-quarter Gasol and challenge every entrance pass, which forces Gasol to meet the ball, and again give up his favorite spot on the left box. The key here is fighting for position before the ball arrives.
When Gasol does catch the ball, his defender seeks to show a slight baseline angle then move to close that space while a helper moves into the middle to jam any spin move. Gasol is a fairly good passer, but he has trouble picking up his dribble and passing on the move.
Since Bynum has to bounce the ball before spinning, stepping through and shooting, attacking his dribble is easily done. Indeed, Bynum is much more dangerous without the ball when he can catch and shoot/dunk while in motion.
Once an interior pivot man turns and faces the rim in the lane, his shot release is also attacked by a sagging wing or guard.
The Celtics’ post defense begins, however, when the entry passer is pressured so that a perfect pass is virtually impossible.
When Kobe’s maneuvers have created a driving lane, the strong-side wing defender (usually Pierce) jumps into a show position, getting sufficient depth to hopefully discourage him from completing his attack on the rim. But this defender doesn’t make a full commitment unless Kobe’s lane is still open, so that he is still able to reverse field and attach himself to the wing player he has temporarily abandoned.
Three defenders always collapse on penetration with active hands that impede escape passes. There’s always somebody coming from the weak side to protect the hoop.
Wing-penetrators are forced baseline, then sealed with a helping big, while the opposite wing or the nearest guard or the other big will drop into the lane to cover any dive-cutters.
Ray Allen, Tony Allen, Rondo, Pierce and Garnett are all quick-footed enough to show themselves in driving lanes and then re-attach to their primary man-to-man coverages.
If their closeouts are a fraction late, they will leap at the erstwhile shooter (Fisher, Jordan Farmer, even Sasha Vujacic) to force him off the 3-point line and into the jaws of a help defender.
Only Kobe and Odom are given iso-opportunities. In defense of these, the defender will body-up, send them into the middle where help awaits in the form of a potential shot-blocker or a defender positioned to draw a charge. Odom, of course, should always be denied his left hand, while the Celtics want to force Kobe to shoot pull-up jumpers under pressure.
GENERAL DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES
The Celtics are always aware of potential passing lanes and part of their scouting report is to plot the Lakers’ favorite angles. This is especially true of kick-out passes by Gasol and/or Kobe.
Weak-side defenders are always aware of strong-side action and are ready to offer instantaneous help. At the same time, some other player is also ready to slide into the area that the helper must vacate when he comes to the ball.
Rondo and Garnett have terrific defensive range.
R. Allen can stay in Kobe’s kitchen knowing that his teammates have his back covered.
T. Allen has the size, strength and quick hands to make Kobe exhaust himself just to get good looks.
Rondo covers more ground than Plastic Man.
The overall keys to Boston’s adhesive defense are speed, quickness, interior power, coordination and a total commitment to Tom Thibodeau’s blueprint.
And, above all, the Celtics never, ever give up on a play.
That’s why they’re on the verge of confirming what Bill Russell demonstrated so many times before: That defense wins championships.