One of the key storylines of the 2008 NBA Finals is the matchup of the postseason's best defense, in the Boston Celtics, with its best offense, that of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Celtics enter the Finals with the best field goal percentage defense in the postseason, as they have held teams to just 42.2% shooting. Conversely, the Lakers have shot a playoff-leading 47.8% over the last three series. In addition, the Celtics have forced an average of 13.1 turnovers per game (fourth-best in the postseason) and are holding opponents to just 18.3 assists per game (sixth-best in the postseason). The Lakers counter by averaging 21.3 assists per game (third-best in the postseason) while their point-per-shot average is 1.32, a playoff high. Something will have to give.
Los Angeles will attack the fearsome Boston defense with a talented group featuring league MVP Kobe Bryant and a supporting cast of complementary parts including Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. However, their main weapon will be the system that has helped Phil Jackson win nine championships, the Triangle offense. The Triangle is a multiple-option read-and-react scheme based on floor spacing, ball and player movement, and timing. Unlike most NBA offenses that are based on screening actions or on dribble penetration, the Triangle mandates a different defensive approach.
Any team has choices to make in preparing to guard the Triangle. The central question for Doc Rivers and his defensive guru Tom Thibodeau will revolve around one word: pressure. How comfortable will the Celtics be pressuring the Lakers in different places on the floor? How Boston answers this question will be a determining factor in the outcome of the series.
While the Celtics were, by many a statistical measure, the best defensive unit in the league this year, it was the stability of that defense that made the difference. Boston's defensive schemes are based on tremendous baseline rotations on the help side, strong but not gambling ball pressure, and very solid work on the glass. In the regular season, they were best in the league at forcing jump shots out of their opponents, as their foes shot a jumper on 70% of their field goal attempts. They gave up the second-fewest number of dunks in the regular season, highlighting their protection of the painted area. This will be a key during this series.
The Triangle offense will test the Celtics across the board in terms of defensive execution. In order to successfully limit its effectiveness, Boston will need to exhibit the kind of focus, discipline, energy and intensity that they displayed throughout the season and in the postseason. Five central factors will determine the level of success the Celtics will have in thwarting the Triangle offense.
The entire defensive approach of the Celtics will start with ball pressure. Because of their superior passing ability, the Lakers pick apart teams that do not put pressure on the ball at every position. That ball pressure should not gamble, reaching for steals or attempting to make the big play. Instead, that ball pressure needs to be constant, pesky and angling for opportunities to prevent easy plays from being made. This all starts with Rajon Rondo. Rondo's ability to pressure the ball consistently up and down the floor makes him very valuable, and the fact that he rarely fatigues gives him an advantage.
The other side of ball pressure will be Boston's ability to challenge shots. Every single Laker shot needs to be a challenged shot. The Celtics have done a better job than anyone in the league over the course of the season and the postseason at making teams not just shoot jump shots, but miss those shots. Teams shot just 31.6% from beyond the arc against Boston this year, and they are shooting 35.6% on two-point jump shots as well. Much of this is a result of steady, controlled closeouts finished with an active contest of all shots.
Disciplined Denial & Help
Tex Winter, the "innovator" of the Triangle Offense, has very consistently said over his years that the Triangle is at its best when passes are moving very quickly from player to player. He calls this "ping" passing. This Laker group, since the addition of Gasol, have been the best passing Triangle team of any of Phil Jackson's championship teams. Gasol is a big reason why, as he is the first big post Jackson has had who can score and pass equally well. Part of Boston's gameplan will be to disrupt the "ping" passing of the Lakers through a mix of passing lane pressure and outright denial.
With that said, the Celtics must be very careful not to overextend their defense. Being too aggressive on denials or passing lane pressure will give the Lakers, a very savvy offensive team, opportunities for backdoor cuts and plays at the rim. The Celtics' goal must be only to prevent rapid ball movement, not to take it away completely. This is a balancing act that only the best defensive teams can accomplish. The Celtics have been one of those teams this season.
The main goal in using some passing lane pressure is to distort or widen the Triangle. Since the offense is so reliant on good floor spacing (no player is ever more than 20-22 feet away from the ball), the ability to force catches higher on the floor and make players move further away from the scoring area will be beneficial to Boston.
At the same time, Boston must commit help-side defenders to jamming the lane and preventing any scores in that area for the Lakers. Again, the discipline and execution this type of play requires shows why NBA athletes are among the best in the world. To go from a hard denial position to a help position and then a ball pressure position is extremely difficult, and it has been Boston's ability to do so at every position that has meant all the difference this season.
One of the major keys in preventing the Lakers attack, not necessarily in the Triangle, is Boston's transition defense. The Lakers get their best shots in transition, whether it is off a turnover or a rebound. The versatility of Los Angeles' bigs, like Lamar Odom, means that one can snag a defensive rebound on one end, push the ball himself and finish the play. This puts a great deal of pressure on the Celtics defensively. One thing Boston may look to do is to jam the rebounder, meaning the Celtics player closest to a rebound controlled by the Lakers will jump up and spend just an extra second pressuring that rebound. At the same time, Rajon Rondo or another Celtics defender will move into a position of pressure on the outlet, preventing the Lakers from any easy looks.
Once in the frontcourt, the goal for Boston will be to prevent Los Angeles from getting easy opportunities at the rim. If they can bait the Lakers into shooting a mid-range jump shot, it will be a successful possession for the Celtics, even if the shot falls.
Physicality Early and Often
With fouls to give in its starting lineup from Kendrick Perkins and off its bench from Leon Powe, Glen Davis, James Posey, Sam Cassell and others, Boston must set the tone with physical play early in the series. In the first two games, it may not appear to be to the Lakers advantage to do so. However, physical play like this is meant to take its toll in games three, four and five. With no Andrew Bynum, the Lakers are missing an enforcer-type presence to protect their stars, and Kobe Bryant should expect to feel plenty of contact on any foray into the lane.
In addition, real physical play disrupts the flow of the Triangle Offense. Bumping any and all cutters with a technique known as "fist and forearm," where a player will use his forearm as a bar preventing easy access to the places the offense wants to go, will be critical. In a play like this, it is the ability to use the body without fouling that is key. The Utah Jazz tried this strategy, but were entirely too aggressive, and the Lakers shot many free throws as a result. The San Antonio Spurs used a similar strategy, but only bumped cutters enough to take them off their path, not an attempt to take them out completely. Expect Boston to follow San Antonio's lead.
The final key, and arguably the most critical, will be Boston's ability to keep Los Angeles off the glass. The Triangle offense is designed to put at least three players in position for an offensive rebound on any given possession. The Lakers utilized this feature to its fullest extent against San Antonio, repeatedly gathering offensive caroms and collecting second-chance possessions.
The nature of Boston's defense will put Los Angeles in a position to shoot a lot of jump shots. However, if those jump shots are missing and Boston does not finish the play with a defensive rebound, they will lose this series. The Lakers have great length in the frontcourt and solid athletes at the guard position, and they will send multiple players to the backboard on any shot. How Boston cleans the glass will be a critical to this series.
Ultimately, as John Hollinger wrote in his series preview for ESPN, this series is about an immovable object (the Boston defense) against an unstoppable force (the Lakers offense). There will be give-and-take on both sides. The Lakers will not change their approach throughout, and Coach Phil Jackson will stay the course no matter what Boston does that is successful. Boston may scheme some adjustments, but they will not sway from their principled, disciplined approach. This series will largely be determined by who executes better-the Lakers offense or the Boston defense. Enjoy this series, a real case where the best two teams this season square off for the championship.
Anthony Macri is a Player Development Specialist for The Basketball Academy and the Pro Training Center at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Florida, where he trains high school, college and NBA players. To email him, click here.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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