How one action stole Game 3 for the Celtics

Part of the beauty of basketball is the inherent tension between its apparent simplicity and underlying complexity. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘easy to learn, difficult to master,’ and the strategy of basketball is exactly that. But paradoxically, that’s not always true. Sometimes, it’s just about executing the simple stuff well.

Joe Mazzulla is starting to master making the simple complex, giving his players multiple variations of the same action and trusting them to pick the right one and execute appropriately. It’s working.

One of the most straightforward, common actions in basketball is the wide pin-down. It’s where a player sets a down screen for a teammate in the corner. You have probably seen it executed hundreds of times. It is fundamental basketball.

The Celtics often don’t get credit for how they sprinkle in different looks to keep defenses guessing and off-balance. Against Indy, Joe’s sprinkle of choice has been these wide pin-down actions and its many variations. Unlike “fetch,” which never happened, Joe Mazzulla’s pin is very much in. Here’s a little sample with Horford setting a wide pin-down screen for Derrick White.

Al is often the screen setter, especially when he’s being guarded by Myles Turner. This gets Turner out in space where he is exploitable and limits his ability to protect the rim. It’s nothing complicated, but the key is in the execution.

It’s also not about how frequent the Celtics run these actions, which is not all that often; it’s about when they choose to do so. There were a lot of reasons the Cs stole Game 3, Jrue Holiday chief among them, but the wide pin-down and its derivatives deserve their share of credit. When the Celtics needed buckets the most, they set down screens in the corners and get their scorers on the move.

Exhibit A: JB’s massive dunk. This isn’t a traditional pin-down where the screen setter and recipient are both off-ball, but it functions the same. Jrue is on-ball, drives to JB in the corner and they get into a dribble handoff with JB coming out of the corner into space with a head of steam (I’ve heard this referred to as a Zoom Action, but those often have 3 players involved, I’m not sure what the two-man variety is called.). The victim, yet again? Myles Turner. It’s great recognition by Jrue and Jaylen. Jrue sees Turner guarding him after a switch and knows the best way to attack him. He and Jaylen read each other, and the defense perfectly, and it’s a very easy two.

Exhibit B: Jrue’s late layup. Here Derrick and Jrue are operating out of the same corner as the play above. This is a throw and chase action where Jrue pitches to White and then sets a down screen for White to, you’ll never believe this, get out of the corner with a head of steam and the ball. It is conceptually the same idea as a wide pin-down, but we just get there a little different. Derrick and Jrue don’t just run a rote pick-and-roll though. Instead, Jrue ghosts the screen and it completely and utterly baffles Indy. They keep two on the ball, Derrick dumps it over the top and it’s an incredibly easy two, especially considering the time and score.

The concepts are the same, but the variation in execution has Indy on their toes.

Exhibit C: Tatum’s kick to Horford for 3. This is the traditional, vanilla pin-down like the original one above, but now it’s Tatum coming out of the corner instead of throwing the pass. This is an execution bucket. Great screen by Al who then spaces to the corner, Tatum comes off of it flying, draws every person in the state of Indiana into the paint, and then throws maybe the best pass of his career. 2-point game.

Setting a screen for the dude in the corner is basketball at its most basic, pure form. It’s something you learn playing as a kid. The complexity comes when we start designing different ways to get into that screen, different players to set it, different players to receive it, and different defenders to attack.

The Jrue Holiday layup was no accident. Boston hit Indy with a series of down screens throughout the game, and nearly every time, the ball handler came off the screen with pace and got middle. It regularly compromised the defense. Naturally, Indy started to react and cheat against that action, until the down screen never came, and Jrue Holiday was totally uncontested under the rim. Indy was caught cheating once, so they refused to let it happen again, which is why we went back to square one. Tatum coming off Al’s screen with nobody connected to him.

The Celtics had Indy’s defense lost. The variations on the basic are why Joe Mazzulla deserves more credit, and why Boston is one win away from the Finals.

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