How Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo forced Celtics defense to return to its old ways

The take du jour coming into this series was that the drop was a thing of the past for Boston† after Tyler Herroz and the heat backcourt torched the Celtics two years ago by pulling up against Daniel Theis sagging back behind the screens, the thought was that Boston would take that away this time by switching up on every screen.

It’s not that the Celtics don’t ever run drop coverage anymore; it’s that they typically don’t have to use it when they’re facing a team that can shoot the ball off the bounce.

Then Herro came into Game 1, saw the drop, and went scorched earth. So why were the Celtics dropping?

Primarily, it’s because of Bam Adebayo† Boston wasn’t in a drop across the board, but players were sitting back on his screens because he isn’t a shooter. The Celtics did that against Giannis Antetokounmpo as a roll man plenty last series, so it’s not something novel.

In the past, Boston has defended screens up to touch, positioning just a few feet under the screen. This typically means the defensive big will corral the ballhandler, and then the screen setter will roll into the paint, where a third defender will “tag” him to stop his roll.

Early on in Game 1, Boston decided to just deep drop all the way back toward the free-throw line, so that it could keep this down to two defenders and stay marked on all the shooters around the floor. Herro tore the Celtics apart working pick-and-roll with Adebayo against the drop, probably because he wasn’t surprised to see it coming.

“I kind of expected it coming in, especially with Theis and their fives,” Herro said. “We’ll see what they do in Game 2, if they make an adjustment. We’ll see.”

The main problem with drop coverage against Jimmy Butler and Adebayo was Boston’s bigs didn’t stunt up at Butler when he went around the screen. He could pull up into his 18-footer with nothing bothering him from the front. Butler didn’t really feel the backdraft of his own man trying to block the shot from behind, and he turned his body to make it almost impossible to block him in the air from behind.

Grant Williams was so far back, he let Butler get all the way to his spot down by the free-throw line, where Boston again would just have the nearest defender contest from behind while Williams is watching the shot. The Celtics didn’t let Antetokounmpo get this deep, so it’s curious they would do the same with perhaps the best midrange scorer in the league.

Grant Williams likely dropped that deep so that Robert Williams didn’t have to step up to the rim unless he absolutely had to. He was responsible for PJ Tucker in the corner, so Boston didn’t want to have to abandon that corner unless necessary. Grant Williams sitting back at least allowed the Celtics to keep the ball in front of them, but the difference between a layup and a 15-footer for Butler is negligible when he’s in rhythm. Boston did little on the perimeter in the second half to ever make him feel out of rhythm. Then, when he got deep enough to bring that extra big into the play, the Celtics got too slap-happy and let him earn fouls too easily.

“Over-aggressive on defense,” Udoka said. “(Butler) got some favorable matchups that he drew some fouls on, as well, and then just even when our bigs were coming across reaching for no reason — we know he’s a guy that wants to get to the free-throw line, wants to pump fake and try to draw fouls, and (we) did a poor job showing our hands and contesting there. Even Rob and Theis and some of those guys came over and swiped down and put him at the free-throw line for no reason, so (there are) a lot of areas we can clean up easily.”

When Miami used non-bigs to screen, Boston would switch on Butler, even if he isn’t a threat to pull up from 3. Best practice would dictate the Celtics need to meet him high so he can’t get downhill.

The problem is Butler absolutely loves when bigs play him tight. He has a lower center of gravity than a Segway and some of the best body control of this era, so he is always looking to initiate contact by going low and then hitting upward, trying to lift the defender off his feet. When Rob Williams played Butler high, he had to move with Butler and couldn’t anchor himself into his spot to stay on balance when Butler struck.

During the third quarter turnover bonanza, Boston started blitzing Butler’s screens, because Butler will often roll out to the midrange so he can get the pass and then attack from the high post. This was the first way he tried to pick on Payton Pritchardand it may be the moment when Boston wanted to drop, since it can live with Gabe Vincent trying to pull up from midrange.

Boston’s main goal should be to keep Butler away from the low post, where he is happy to pick up his dribble, get low and shot fake over and over until someone bites.

“To put a guy on the line 18 times, (we’ve) just got to play smarter,” Theis said. “We know he’s a big shot fake guy, so all of us, we … just got to be smarter and put the hands back and just make him make tough shots. Like, he had some tough shots he made, can shake his hand, but can’t bail him out and put him on the free-throw line that many times, because he’s a great free-throw shooter. That’s easy points right there, gets him a rhythm. So we got to stay away from that.”

Miami getting comfortable against drop coverage didn’t hurt Boston much in the first half because Boston was impressive at the rim and the offense was firing on all cylinders. But it’s hard to come away from that game feeling the Celtics’ offense should just bounce back to the way it looked in the second quarter.

One of the Celtics’ talking points after the game was that they won the other three quarters, which is a bit of a misconception since they shouldn’t need a quarter break to reset the flow of the game. They should accomplish that in their timeouts, but the turnovers were even worse when that happened in the third. Still, it’s valid to feel that they can change their priorities on defense, adjust to Miami’s defensive tendencies on the other side and remain competitive in this series. It’s just going to take a lot of work, and potentially getting Marcus Smart back for Game 2 will be far from a magical fix.

(Photo: Michael Reaves /Getty Images)

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