It was the moment that defined the race for the final homecourt spot in the East, a dribble hand-off from Al Horford to Kyrie Irving that resulted in a go-ahead lay-up with 0.5 seconds left to play.
Though quite obviously aided and abetted by botched defense, the simple action also got an assist from Irving’s skills of deception, as well as geometry. By leaving the trap way too early out of concern for getting back to Horford, Myles Turner gave the league’s leader in clutch-time field goals an open path to the basket. That’s unacceptable, but take a closer look at Boston’s initial set-up:
Because Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown are both purposefully sardined into the opposite corner, the distance by which Cory Joseph or Bojan Bogdanovic would have to cover to stunt toward Horford to the point of contact is stretched to the furthest possible measure. Without an offensive player stationed at the slot, neither defender is in position to play things half-way or hop over quickly from the wing and create the illusion of a guarded pass. One of them is going to have to leave their check to closeout to the popper, and as soon as they do, the other is going to be left to defend two players at once.
With that in mind, the Grizzlies did what the Pacers should’ve done. They forced someone other than Irving to beat them, and...well...that’s exactly what happened. With Garrett Temple and Marc Gasol both committed to the ball, Mike Conley sprinted to Horford from the baseline in the would-be role of Cory Joseph and ended up watching the ball sail through the net for three instead of two.
Granted, a semi-contested three is clearly preferable to a clean lay-up, but the action is still very much pick your poison.
Even when the nearest weakside defender pre-rotates to Horford’s spot, Irving nonetheless manages to shake free his pick-and-roll partner by baiting the stunter into believing he might throw a skip pass.
Paul George is one of the very best anticipatory defenders in the NBA, and yet...This. Still. Happened.
There are no good answers here, some are just less bad than others. And, unfortunately, one of the answers that might qualify as less bad is decidedly taboo.
Or, is it?
Teams typically avoid sending help from the strong side corner because doing so risks netting the offense an open look from the shorter long-range distance, but Boston is far from being your typical team.
In fact, they’re atypical.
Per NBA.com, they were the only team that finished the season with a better 3-point field goal percentage from above the break than the corners, AND they were the only team to shoot below 30 percent from the right corner, which just so happens to be the side of the floor from which they most often initiate the above action.
Here’s what’s really telling about how poorly they shot from that particular spot, though: They’re monthly splits weren’t wildly inconsistent, they were consistently bad.
It’s also not as if one player brought down their team-average. For the season, Jayson Tatum (29.2%), Jaylen Brown (27.5%), Semi Ojeleye (23.5%), Terry Rozier (20%), and Marcus Morris (17.2%) all shot below 30 percent from the right side, just like the Celtics did as a team.
There’s no guarantee that the lid will stay on in the playoffs, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that it might — perhaps even enough to consider doing the unthinkable.
Let’s rewind the original last-second possession, and imagine what would’ve happened if the Pacers had defended the hand-off (acting like a ball screen) as an aggressive drop rather than a bungled trap.
Wesley Matthews wouldn’t be pushing Irving to the sideline, he’d be chasing the dazzling ball-handler around the Horford pick-and-pop. This serves two purposes. For one thing, his rearview pursuit would put his body squarely in the way of the six-time All-Star’s ability to sneak-in a quick behind-the-back pass as a counter measure. But more importantly, with high hands disrupting the passing lane, Matthews would buy Myles Turner some extra time to recover to Horford after dissuading Irving from launching an off-the-dribble three.
The intent here wouldn’t be to force the ball out of Irving’s hands, it would be to bother his release valve to Horford while keeping Matthews in guarding position.
Assuming the hand-off/screen is defended, the next part is where things get interesting.
And, yes, even a little off-the-wall.
If Irving beats Matthews on the drive with his dizzying handles, why not have the stocky defender cut bait to rush Jayson Tatum in the corner and let Thaddeus Young slide his mobile length over in front of the ball?
To be clear, this wouldn’t be a lunge from Thad. It would be a full-on switch, and a dangerous one at that. In order to stop the ball, Young is going to have to leave the strong-side corner as Matthews crosses behind.
The timing here is key and has to be more precise that what is illustrated above. In real-time, Young took a quick jab at Irving, but was thrown off-balance by a pass fake. If the strategy going-in is to switch these blow-by drives, knocking the lefty power forward off the scent is going to be less likely, as Matthews should already be in the crafty guard’s blind spot en route to exit from the other side with high hands.
There’s still going to be a passing window, and the weak side low man is going to have to be on the lookout for the possibility of Tatum making a break for the rim; but, that might just be okay against these Celtics.
Despite ranking 7th in overall 3-point field goal percentage, they have the worst conversion rate on right corner threes since the 2008-09 Washington Wizards, a team which finished that season with a 19-63 record.
Boston also has five fewer wins this season than last season and three fewer wins than the year before that, though they’re stocked with more talent.
With a statisitical oddity as odd as their season, maybe, a strange defensive adjustment isn’t so strange against a strange team. And, maybe, the Pacers should consider meeting the Celtics at their weird.