Ime Udoka showed no mercy during Game 2.
Though Udoka probably didn’t ask any of the Celtics players to sweep an opponent’s leg, Cobra Kai style, he did hammer away at the Nets’ shortcomings in his own way. As Grant Williams said of Boston’s fourth-quarter style, “We kept running the same thing over and over.”
It worked. With the Celtics facing a five-point deficit early in the fourth quarter Wednesday night, Udoka dialed up likely the most significant in-game adjustment of his young coaching career, given the circumstances. Partly to change Boston’s spacing, he called on a lineup full of his team’s best shooters: Payton Pritchard, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams and Al Horford. The group had only played six minutes together during the regular season. It did not include either Marcus Smart or Derrick White. Still, Udoka felt comfortable turning to the unit with a playoff game on the line. He had a vision.
Over the next several minutes, the Celtics ran some variation of the same look on almost every possession. They stationed Horford and Williams in the two corners, knowing the Nets would not want to leave either of them alone. The placement of the two Boston big men dragged their defenders, usually Kevin Durant and either Andre Drummond or Nicolas Claxton, out of the paint. By taking the Nets’ two longest players away from the action, the Celtics also took advantage of Brooklyn’s lack of defensive depth. The Nets simply don’t have much perimeter size or length. Udoka’s decision left his own team’s three best shooters – Tatum, Brown and Pritchard – essentially playing three-on-three against small defenders in space.
The strategy set up Boston’s best offensive stretch of the game, a string of five straight scores that flipped a five-point deficit into a 99-94 lead. The Celtics didn’t just target mismatches with stagnant isolations. They did it with smart, team basketball involving several players.
“We want to make them guard more than just one action,” Udoka said. “Swing the ball side-to-side. Their defense started to dissipate with more passes and playing against closeouts. “
The Celtics’ floor-spacing tricks paid dividends immediately. On the first possession out of a timeout, Boston’s three guards screened for one another repeatedly until they were able to put the Nets in a bad spot.
The Nets want to keep Durant on Tatum but eventually get caught up in all of Boston’s screening action. Once Tatum breaks free on the roll, the Nets are forced to collapse on him. Instead of forcing a layup attempt in traffic, he calmly takes advantage of all the pressure on him by spotting Brown at the 3-point arc. When the Nets are less than sharp in their rotations, Brown hops into an open look.
Two plays later, the Celtics found a different option:
Once the Nets switch Kyrie Irving onto Tatum, the Celtics find the matchup in the post. Instead of just going at Irving one-on-one, Tatum uses the mismatch to set up an opportunity for one of his teammates. The Nets, worried about Tatum, shade over enough to leave Pritchard open. Though he doesn’t have enough space to release a catch-and-shoot jumper, he can take advantage of Seth Curry’s closeout.
Pritchard actually had a rough start to the fourth quarter. He bricked a long 3-point attempt, then committed a turnover while forcing a pass to Brown. The Celtics went scoreless over the first two minutes of the period and fell behind by seven points. Even after that, Udoka stuck with Pritchard, showing significant belief in the second-year pro. He knew the threat of Pritchard, a 41.2 percent career 3-point shooter, would change the way Brooklyn needed to defend.
“Payton had a hot hand, had it going,” Udoka said. “But they guard him differently. The spacing, him being able to handle and be a shot maker as well as setting screens, that worked well for us, we went with it. “
The Celtics worked in harmony throughout their run. They were willing to shuffle through several screens to find a crack in the Brooklyn defense. With five 3-point shooters on the court, they were also able to use their collective shooting gravity to open up lanes:
Here, Brown benefits from all the floor spacers around him. Curry doesn’t want to stray too far from Tatum. Bruce Brown doesn’t want to shade over too far either. Durant eventually helps off Williams but doesn’t do so too aggressively, probably because he’s nervous about letting Williams shoot a wide-open jumper. The attention elsewhere leaves Irving on an island against Jaylen Brown – a situation the Celtics will take every time.
Udoka went away from his normal rotation to stick with the successful lineup. White, who averaged more than 27 minutes per game during the regular season, only received 13 in Game 2. Pritchard also cut into Smart’s playing time, especially during the fourth quarter. Though that won’t happen every game, the Celtics have prioritized spacing during parts of this series because of how much attention the Nets send to Tatum and Brown. Though Tatum handed out 10 assists in Game 2, Udoka thought the All-Star “missed some outlets” while “playing in a crowd, especially early” in the game. The Celtics want to give Tatum “more space to operate with,” as they did late in Game 2 with the additional shooting on the court.
“I think we found that later in the game,” Udoka said. That was obviously their point of emphasis coming into (Game 2) was to be extremely physical with him and show him a crowd wherever he was at. Moreso than isolations on the nails in certain areas, we are going to have to get him out in space playing against a crowd. He can be a playmaker he has been later this year and get everyone involved, and it will open up for him late. “
Everything opened up for Boston after Udoka turned to the five-out look. While burning the Nets’ defense repeatedly, the Celtics were also able to get stops of their own – a key factor considering they were smaller than usual with Pritchard on the court. The game-changing lineup shot 5-for-8 from the field, including 2-for-5 from behind the arc, while outscoring Brooklyn 12-2.
“We’re gonna go with guys that are playing well with specific groups,” Udoka said. “And it’s not like we have a lack of confidence or problem with anyone in the game. Understand they’re gonna attack certain matchups, but as I said with Payton, he’s one of our toughest guys out there and what he does offensively for us spacing-wise is very noticeable. “
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