In my latest podcast I talked about how the Celtics were a bad matchup for the Bucks. I also weaseled out of making a prediction since I was torn between both teams. All season I thought the Bucks were the team that had the best on-court fit in the eastern conference. A 5-out motion offense built around Giannis with shooting at every position. Brook Lopez became instrumental with his floor spacing ability and paint protection on defense. Even with having arguably the best player going in the league, the best record in the league, a top five offensive and defensive efficiency and a great coach, I wasn’t confident picking them over the Celtics. A Celtics team a lot of people wrote off before the playoffs started, and with some justification of course. They haven’t been on the same page all season, injuries have taken a toll and players haven’t progressed like they should’ve. I still like the Celtics because of how they are designed; a pick-and-roll mismatch problem at center, a slashing scoring three point shooting point guard with big switchable wings. That type of team design is built well for the postseason.
The regular season isn’t the playoffs. It isn’t about doing one thing great, it’s about versatility. Yes, the Bucks are a great defensive team but they were built primarily around a contain first pick-and-roll coverage. In the playoffs you need to be diverse enough to cover pick-and-roll’s every which way. Brook Lopez is great at one type of pick-and-roll coverage but can he hedge? Switch? And cover space in a timely matter? That was my issue going into this series. That was why I couldn’t in good faith pick the Bucks over the Celtics. Game one confirmed my suspicion and if the Bucks don’t make the necessary adjustments they will lose this series.
To start off the game the Celtics had Horford defend Giannis. They did the same thing to Ben Simmons last postseason. Although, the difference is the Celtics are playing tighter gap protection on Giannis’ drives.
In the first play you have Jayson Tatum leaving his man along the perimeter to shadow Giannis with the help of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris hugging the lane line to shrink space. The next play you have Giannis in transition with Horford guarding him, Irving shadowing him, Morris in the middle of the paint and Tatum taking a dig at him from the corner. The Celtics were keying in on Giannis.
The Celtics would also put Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris on Giannis when Horford was on the bench. Horford actually did a good job cutting off driving angles and giving help defense time to crash down. Boston was ok taking an extra step in on Giannis while giving extra space to the Bucks shooters. Whether that’s because Malcolm Brogdon is hurt and they are giving his replacement Sterling Brown license to drive.
Or they don’t trust players like Pat Connaughton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Nikola Mirotic and Ersan Ilyasova to torch them from three and attack closeouts.
The Celtics were switching on most ball screens and then would revert back to safer matchups on the weak side. The Bucks did headhunt on occasion looking for better cross matchups like Terry Rozier defending Giannis but rarely did they go to that. That should be something the Bucks try to exploit more in game two. Overall game one the Bucks stuck with what they knew best. They’re going to have to trust their shooters moving forward even if they miss open shots. Those shooters are paramount for Milwaukee’s floor balance. I would like to see DJ Wilson get more playing time. I think his length and athleticism at the forward/center position can help in terms of positional versatility. Until they get Brogdon back, they will be lacking another creator on offense and players like Pat Connaughton will have to play major minutes even though they’re struggling just to defend Boston’s point of attack offense. Brook Lopez will have to make open threes while Bledsoe will have to be better off the bounce if they want this to be a competitive series.
Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez are great drop coverage defenders. During the regular season you can rely on that to win defensive player of the year and be apart of a top five defense. Come playoff time it’s about versatility and how well you can cover space.
The Bucks were containing most everything on ball screens and hardly stunted at the shooter left open. If Horford can make that above the break three consistently the Bucks will have to make adjustments asap. Lopez, Mirotic and Ilyasova can’t cover ground as fast as they need to versus the Celtics ball screen motion offense.
The Celtics were bending the Bucks defense all game and making them scramble on exploitable matchups.
That’s part of the reason why I think DJ Wilson should play more game two. He has the lateral movement to stay on switches and good change of direction ability to cover space in a timely matter. It doesn’t help when, at times, the Bucks were struggling to contain dribble penetration, were slow to matchup and had poor communication.
This was my overall fear coming into this series and it played out terribly for the Bucks.
The Bucks are obviously not out of it yet. They have to do a better job headhunting on offense, making open threes, stunting at the pick-and-pop shooter and covering space on defense. Hopefully it’s not a little too late when Malcolm Brogdon comes back, he could be the difference maker the Bucks need to help with continuity. Until then however Eric Bledsoe will have to step up his role on offense. I said whoever wins this series will win the eastern conference and I stand by that claim. Unless the Bucks make the correct adjustments, the Celtics could be that team.
Is Gary Clark integral for the Houston Rockets success? Probably not. Is giving him a roster spot make or break for the Houston Rockets? No. Does anyone know who Gary Clark even is? Doubtful. But is it better to give Clark a roster spot rather then sending him down to the G-League? Yes, I think so.
Gary Clark was a highly regarded prospect in many NBA draft expert circles during this past years draft. Coming out of Cincinnati and winning AAC conference player of the year Clark didn’t have the upside of a potential star player but did display role player abilities like high defensive IQ, hustle and spatial awareness. He wasn’t the greatest one-on-one defender, had a limited handle, is 23 years old going on 24 and had an inconsistent shot. His upside and overall package of skill wasn’t that enticing for rebuilding teams. But as far as role player on a contending team potential Clark was a standout. He ended up going undrafted while the Rockets were quick to act by signing him to a two-way contract. That means he only has 45 days with the pro club while spending the rest of his time in the G-League. Clark has an “exhibit 10” clause included in his two-way contract which means at any time during the season the Rockets can convert his contract to become a standard NBA deal. He would be a full time member of the pro club officially. The Rockets would need an empty roster spot to execute the clause though.
The defense of the Houston Rockets has been much maligned nine games into the season. The reported news of defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik coming back will certainly help but during this nine game stretch there already has been a slight improvement over the past few games. The Rockets didn’t alter their defensive pick-and-roll coverage and stuck with a switching concept amid the rough start. Getting Chris Paul and James Ennis back helped plus not playing Michael Carter-Williams was a smart decision as well. But a player that has so far demonstrated that he fits within the Rockets scheme has been Gary Clark. The Rockets were having trouble with v-back rotations and filling the low man. Some of that could be attributed to poor execution of switches, communication and ability.
Clark has come in and given Houston quality minutes off the bench especially on the defensive side. Clark fits the switching scheme Mike D’Antoni wants to establish and the help skills on defense that the Rockets are deficient at so far. Clark possesses the body type to switch standing 6’8 with a 6’10 wingspan but does have trouble containing quicker players on the perimeter and can over help at times. Although, in comparison to Carmelo Anthony, Clark is a defensive stalwart. The sample size is small but I’m going to go over some plays that highlights Clark’s help defense:
While Clark is banging in the paint versus Caleb Swanigan Seth Curry drives past Clint Capela who was switched onto him. Clark doesn’t hesitate on the drive and rises for the block:
While Clark is guarding Doug Mcdermott Tyreke Evans crosses over James Ennis and attacks the rim. Mcdermott fills the weak side corner but Clark pivots and walls off Evans:
Cristiano Felicio gets the ball on a rim-run while Clark is guarding Antonio Blakeney in the weak side corner. Clark being in great low man position makes a fine contest on Felicio:
Cameron Payne blows by Isaiah Hartenstein with Clark cutting off the drive going vertical:
Carmelo Anthony doubles Domantas Sabonis in the post leaving Myles Turner open. Clark sinks onto Turner and strips the ball causing a turnover:
On offense Clark is still super raw. His overall offensive game could be what holds him back from keeping a roster spot. He needs to work on his screen setting skills, the consistency of his follow thru on his three point shot and being able to attack closeouts. He isn’t shy to shoot the three averaging 3.4 threes per game on 11.4 minutes per game. While only averaging 29.6% from three the sheer fact he’s shooting that shot has kept defenses somewhat honest defending the perimeter. The offensive system that D’Antoni runs doesn’t call for a player like Clark to have the ball in his hands all that much. Clark’s role is to set screens, dive or pop, space the corners and bring energy when going after loose balls. Clark has been great at finding a body to box out, attacking the rebound while in the air and timing his jump at the rebounds apex. While other players remain flat footed staring at the rebound Clark attacks the ball and fights for position. His overall hustle and touch passes to the corner have given Clark positional value on a team in search for “3-and-D” wings.
Clark no doubt needs to spend time in the G-League to refine his skills. But given his skill set and fit within both offensive and defensive schemes his contract needs to be converted to a standard deal asap. Clark has the best defensive rating on the team with a commanding 98.5 points per 100 possessions, the next closest is James Ennis at 104.9. If the Rockets want to cut someone then why not cut the player who is sporting a -19.9 net efficiency, has a partially guaranteed minimum contract and is steadily losing playing time: Michael Carter-Williams. Gary Clark could be a Luc Mbah a Moute replacement and give solid minutes during a potential playoff run. As it stands now with his two-way contract he wouldn’t even be able to play in the playoffs. Like I said earlier this isn’t make or break. But if the Rockets are serious about contending for a title this year then having a player like Clark over Carter-Williams would be for the better.
On an incredible stretch run of basketball winning 20 of 21 games how did the Philadelphia 76ers lose in five to the undermanned Celtics? Even with Boston having home court advantage the Sixers seemed to be the favorites due to Bostons injury woes and momentum. The Sixers were trending towards a matchup with Lebron in the Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia had two budding superstars and with the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova a deeper team. So what went wrong? How did everything come crashing down on the hottest team in the league in a matter of five games? Was the winning streak a mirage? Was the matchup problem with the Celtics that egregious? Now with Lebron in the Western Conference there’s a chance this potential rematch can determine the outcome of the Eastern Conference. If these teams meet again during this years postseason both rosters will look different. I want to examine what struggles the Sixers went through and explore what triumphs did Boston achieve last Eastern Conference semifinals. I also want to analyze the effects of the new rosters and what impact they will have if a postseason rematch happens.
The Sixers were up four points with a minute left to go in overtime during game three and up four points with a minute and thirty-seven seconds left to go during game five. Now those leads aren’t insurmountable and one possession games can be fickle with terribly blown calls, a convenient bounce of the ball, head scratching turnovers and weirdly called fouls. But there’s no question the Sixers should’ve closed those games. They are the type of games you have to win. I’m about to probe this series and go over what Philadelphia did wrong but a couple minutes is the difference from changing the narrative completely. I’m not even going to include game two where the Sixers were up five points with five minutes and forty-eight seconds left to go in the game. At least that scenario is less deplorable for the Sixers.
The end of game three and game five bring me to arguably the most important factor of Philadelphia’s descent: finishing games and situational basketball. Before I go more in depth here’s a video I made breaking down some of the 76ers end of game mishaps:
This was on the coaches for not making the correct play call adjustments and the players for not being poised enough to make the correct reads. Game three was tied and with five seconds left to go JJ Reddick throws a bad pass for a turnover transitioning Boston into an easy fast break bucket. Apparently the play the Sixers were running called for Simmons to get the pass from Reddick off an Embiid screen. The problem was Simmons never turned his head around but Reddick threw it anyways. Some might chalk that up to a miscommunication but Reddick has to identify the action more properly and hold onto the ball and adapt accordingly. Bottom line is if Simmons isn’t looking don’t pass the ball even if the play calls for it. Reddick should’ve known better.
Luckily Marco Belinelli made a last second buzzer beater to send the game into overtime. Ben Simmons gets an offensive rebound with seventeen seconds left in overtime and the Sixers were up one. You might be thinking to yourself that Simmons pulled the ball back out, got fouled and made the game a three point difference. Makes sense, right? If that’s what you’re thinking than you’d be wrong since Simmons immediately shot the ball, Boston got the rebound and called a timeout. The Celtics ended up running a simple but clever play knowing that the Sixers were switching most everything off-ball. During the play Embiid gets switched out onto Jaylen Brown off a Horford pindown and Tatum cross screen, clearing out the paint and lobbing an overhead entry pass to Horford for the easy two. The Celtics were dictating the terms of the game. But don’t worry though. The Sixers still have five seconds left to give themselves a solid chance at winning. Surely they can get a good shot off? Well, not quite. Simmons doesn’t throw a clean inbound pass to Embiid and Horford picks the ball off for the win. Oh good grief.
Most of game three errors can be attributed to unforced turnovers and not knowing what the situation called for. Game five on the other hand had a lot to do with basic fundamental missteps. With a minute twenty-seven left to go in the game five Dario Saric and Ben Simmons miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll coverage leaving Horford open for a lob pass. Next Boston possession Simmons gets beat at the point of attack by Jayson Tatum. Tatum missed the layup attempt but both Saric and Simmons remained flat footed while Marcus Smart explodes for the easy put back. Next Sixers possession Saric commits an unforced turnover then the next Celtics possession Simmons gets beat backdoor for a Tatum layup. That was the go-ahead bucket and the Celtics never looked back. Simmons was terrible at defense with two minutes left to go in the game: not boxing out, floating off-ball, not staying balanced containing dribble penetration, biting on fakes in the paint and overall looking lost on defense. Simmons was bad at defense but this was a team effort at being unclutch. The Sixers were -21.2 points per 100 possessions throughout the playoffs during games that had five minutes left to go and the score being within five points.
The end of game performance and unforced turnovers were frustrating but the rate at which they occurred were just mind boggling. You can somewhat blame the Sixers youth for their blunders but they did lead the league during the regular season with 16.5 turnovers per game so clearly this was a major problem all year. Also the Celtics were a young team too being lead by a rookie in Jayson Tatum. I don’t know how legit of an excuse being young is then. Maybe the biggest culprit of error for Philadelphia was coaching and game strategy. The Sixers run a motion styled offense with a bunch of ball reversals, screen aways, cut throughs, fills, curl cuts, long curls, backdoors, ball movement and player movement. They were second in the NBA with an assist percentage of 66.3% and a pace of 102.2 possessions per 100 possessions which ranked fourth. The Sixers offense was about bending the defense to find open shooters and pushing tempo to get into their early offense. After the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova the Sixers had an offensive rating of 111.5 offense which was fifth best during that stretch. Combine that to their already stout defense lead by defensive anchor Joel Embiid and the Sixers ended up winning the final twenty-two of twenty-seven games. With a team humming on all cylinders how did the coaching and strategy breakdown?
Boston presented Philadelphia with a few matchup problems. For starters Boston singled Joel Embiid in the post and made Philadelphia’s shooters into drivers. Embiid normally good in the paint sported a .97 points per possession from the post during the regular season but a .81 points per possession from the post in the playoffs. If Embiid is failing in the post then why would anyone leave their shooters? The only time I noticed the Celtics doubling Embiid was when he had great position around the restricted area. The Celtics were content on letting Horford or Baynes guard Embiid one-on-one in the post and close off air space for the Sixers shooters. The Celtics would lock-and-trail shooters on off-ball movement and would switch on-ball depending on personal reads. Boston was forcing the Sixers shooters to create separation on their own.
The Sixers had a solid group of shooters during the regular season making 36.9% of threes which was tied for eighth best. However outside of Dario Saric and JJ Reddick no one was able to attack closeouts proficiently. Even when the Sixers shooters got solid looks from three they still missed some with Belinelli shooting 31%, Covington shooting 25%, Ilyasova shooting 21% and Philadelphia shooting 31% from three as a team during the Celtics series. Add that to their inability attacking closeouts and that’s a recipe for complications. One way the Sixers combated this issue was dribble pitches and dribble handoffs with Embiid and Reddick as a two man game from the wings. Embiid would stretch out the Celtics defense bringing Horford or Baynes out of the paint. Embiid is also a brilliant passer and Reddick has terrific foot work off screens using variations of stunts, fakes and set ups to create enough daylight for wider passing angles. The Sixers also maintained off-ball actions trying to free their shooters through pindowns, flares, staggers, hammer passes and rescreens. Essentially doing what they know how to do: motion offense.
Philadelphia was having trouble getting their shooters space so they ramped up motion based plays. The problem was that Boston’s defense was built to switch off-ball so no matter what action you ran it could still be cut off, in particular when you’re using players who can’t create off a live dribble. For the most part the Sixers had spot-up shooters who couldn’t off-dribble pull up or get to the rim. If that was the case then why not use more spread based pick-and-roll offense? During the regular season Philadelphia was last place in possessions when using the roll-man out of pick-and-roll and second last when going with pick-and-roll ball-handler. This just highlights how much the Sixers used pick-and-rolls to stabilize their offense even though it’s a very effective play especially when using the roll-man.
Throughout the series with Boston every time the Sixers used a high side pick-and-roll with Simmons/Embiid surrounded by shooters Boston had their help side defense tagging Embiid on his dive leaving a shooter wide open. When the Sixers ran simple spread pick-and-roll either the dive-man got an easy layup attempt, a shooter was left open or the ball handler had more space to contort the drive. The Celtics couldn’t just switch their way out of this action and had to scramble help defense. As a result the Sixers shooters had more space to operate. But for some reason the Sixers rarely went to it and stuck by with motion. The few times they did go to pick-and-roll the outcome would typically be positive. I found that to be a huge adjustment mistake by the Sixers coaching staff.
The Sixers coaching staff ended up making a lineup adjustment starting TJ Mcconnell game four over the struggling Robert Covington which worked out well but it didn’t fix the root of the problem. Mcconnell has dribble drive moves that can collapse a defense and create movement for his shooters but it was only a band-aid. It was a temporary fix because the court was still shrinking for the Sixers even though they were able to manipulate driving lanes better. It isn’t an advantageous situation when you have Embiid in the post with two non-shooters on the perimeter. Sometimes the Sixers off-ball cutters would run into Embiid when he was working the post. Simmons was doing Embiid no favors either by being passive on his drives and routinely picking up his dribble resetting the offense. I don’t know if it was because Simmons isn’t confident at the free throw line but time and time again Simmons misread driving angles and had poor body control on his floaters. Simmons shot 28.6% on paint attempts not including restricted area shots. The Celtics did put Marcus Morris and Al Horford on Simmons sagging off him at times helping maintain dribble penetration but there were still opportunities that Simmons didn’t leverage.
Defensively for Philadelphia the Celtics would occasionally space out Embiid with Aaron Baynes in the corner or Al Horford on a high side pick-and-pop. Taking Embiid out of the post to leave the rim unprotected left the Sixers back end more vulnerable. Early in the series Embiid was late on his rotations when recovering drop coverage versus an Al Horford pick-and-pop. Embiid does a solid job on switches but can struggle to cover space in a hurry due to lack of acceleration and change-of-direction. The adjustment was to put Embiid on Marcus Morris more since Morris isn’t involved in pick-and-roll situations as much. But again this is only a band-aid since it doesn’t fix how porous the paint is without Embiid protecting it.
The Sixers were not scrambling well on the Celtics side-to-side swings, dribble penetration and weak side shooters. When you have Embiid recovering late and perimeter defenders like JJ Reddick getting beat by first step attacks it’s an uphill battle for the defense to overcome. Robert Covington was one of the better defenders in the league sporting the third best defensive real plus/minus at +4.24 during the season. Surly he was able to stifle first step moves or setup dribble drives? Yet again even he was having trouble containing dribble drives getting beat by pivots, rip-thrus and exhibiting poor balance. Covington looked like a deer lost in headlights this series. At times he was unplayable and looked like the undrafted player he is. The Celtics would also headhunt Marco Belinelli, JJ Reddick and TJ Mcconnell since they literally couldn’t guard anyone. The Celtics had a few players who were tough to guard out of the triple threat stance and with no one protecting the glass the Celtics would routinely attack Reddick with Brown or Belinelli with Tatum; the Celtics didn’t have to worry about weak side block attempts. Overall the Sixers didn’t have the foot speed to bottle up the Celtics perimeter scorers.
This series was combination bad matchup and not so stellar coaching. Maybe if the Sixers had more versatile players the coaching staff would’ve engaged the Celtics with different tactics. And again maybe I’m reading too much into it because a couple minutes is the difference from the series being turned upside down. Or it could just be that the inherent flaws the Sixers possess lead them to blunder play after play late in the game. Are the Sixers doomed to repeat the issues of the 2018 playoffs in 2019?
One of the Sixers biggest needs this off-season was a perimeter scorer. The Sixers three best scorers are Embiid who isn’t efficient from three and is post heavy, Reddick who is a liability on defense and Simmons who can’t shoot. The Sixers wanted to go after Paul George, Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard but struck out on all three. This remains a huge issue going forward as late game scoring devolves into one-on-one basketball quite often. Philadelphia needs a three level perimeter scorer if they want a better chance at beating Boston. The Sixers also lost Belinelli and Ilyasova this off-season and replaced their shooting with Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and to a certain extent Furkan Korkmaz. Muscala is a lesser known name coming from Atlanta but is a career 37.8% three point shooter. Shamet is a rookie but shot 44% from three his last two years of college. Korkmaz dealt with injuries during his rookie year last season but deserves a crack at the rotation since he’s been able to showcase his scoring ability during the summer league and preseason. There’s a lot of unpredictability in trusting three obscure players but I actually like all three to fill the void as shooters. Being able to defend though is a different discussion.
To fill in the gaps defensively for the Sixers they went out and drafted Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler. Both players have the size and athleticism to be apart of a switching defense, something that was lacking versus the Celtics. Chandler seems to be dealing with a hamstring injury, it doesn’t appear to be too serious but hamstring injuries can never be taken too lightly. Smith on the other hand could be out for the season with a broken foot. Even if he comes back late in the year he’s still starting from behind. Smith has the defensive acumen the Sixers crave but is super raw offensively. Taking away that season of development might mean that Smith will be unplayable during the playoffs. Zhaire Smith being hurt was a big loss for the Sixers hopes at beating Boston.
Internal development will also be key for the Sixers battle against Boston. Simmons needs to shoot better from the free throw line and mid-range. The media is clamoring for Simmons to start shooting threes more but I just want him to step into a mid-range pull-up. Just that alone will affect the defensive alignment for the opposing team. Embiid needs to improve his outside jump shot but that’s more of a luxury at this point. And finally the man of mystery Markelle Fultz needs to mentally be over his shoulder injury. If Fultz can play like the draft hype imagined then he could be the x-factor the Sixers need. He can create separation on his own, initiate offense for others, take it to the rim with ease and force pressure on Boston’s defenders. His release on his three point shot is still low but confidence might be the objective to forge in this scenario.
There really isn’t much to say about Boston’s new roster since health is their main goal. The Celtics are the ones with the vantage point over the Sixers in terms of perimeter defenders and three level scorers. The Celtics are built perfectly for the modern day NBA but staying healthy is an ambiguous aspiration. Getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and maintaining their well-being might determine a possible rematch against the Sixers. The Celtics biggest roster move this off-season was drafting Robert Williams who might be a couple years away but has the potential for an immediate role as a rotational big-man. The Sixers lost to the Celtics without Hayward, Irving and Williams last postseason. After Philadelphia made marginal moves to upgrade their roster this off-season are they ready to win a potential rematch?
Well it could take Boston a few months to reintegrate Irving and Hayward plus Philadelphia could end up using more pick-and-rolls with Markelle Fultz getting additional playing time. So there’s a chance Philadelphia plays better than Boston in the early months but it’s obviously how you play during the postseason that matters most. As of now it doesn’t look good for Philly if a postseason rematch happens. Losing Zhaire Smith was a big blow and banking on internal growth is a fortuitous ask for the Sixers. The regular season does tend to be volatile with injuries, trades and breakout stars. Six months from now is a long ways away and a lot could happen between then. The Bucks offense looks really good during the preseason and the Raptors are stacked. By no means is a Sixers/Celtics rematch in the works but as a basketball fan it sure be enjoyable to watch.
*All Stats Provided by NBA.com*
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