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How a subtle tactic from Brad Stevens helped carry Celtics to 7th straight victory

(Kathyn Riley/Getty Images)

The NBA postseason is a chess match. Good teams know each other inside out and find a way to attack the weakness within an opponent over and over until something changes, whether it be strategy or personnel. Brad Stevens has had great success on this front throughout his career when he has a team buying into his direction and scheme from top to bottom (i.e. not last season) and it’s been a crucial factor in the C’s surprise 37-15 start to the season.

While Sunday’s Thunder-Celtics matchup was not a playoff matchup on paper, it was about as close as you were going to get in the regular season. Both teams were at full strength (minus Rob Williams) among their core players and everyone had been playing terrific basketball for the last few weeks. The Celtics came in with six straight wins and the Thunder had four straight. Both teams had won nine out of 10. Each team came in rested as well (no back-to-backs lately).

Sure enough, the strong play continued in the head-to-head battle for much of the night it was a back and forth affair for three quarters with both teams trading punches, leading to a tie game entering the fourth quarter.

For most teams in Oklahoma City, a tie game with 12 minutes to go has been bad news. The Thunder have been the best fourth-quarter team in the league (+9.9 net rating) thanks to the NBA’s best defense in the fourth quarter (100.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).

A healthy Celtics lineup was not fazed by this situation though, scoring 28 points and leading by as many as nine points late in the fourth quarter on their way to holding on for a 112-111 win. Late mistakes on offense made the final score much closer than it should have been as the visitors had this thing pretty much wrapped up (or should have) after building a nine-point lead (110-101) with just under two minutes remaining.

The creation of that advantage came largely due to a tactic that Stevens primarily saved for the fourth quarter. He saw the weakness in theThunder defense and was determined to have his versatile lineups attack it at every opportunity.

The trouble spot for OKC? Danilo Gallinari.

The veteran was his normal efficient self on the offensive end in this one, scoring a team-high 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting while attacking mismatches against the likes of Kemba Walker and others. That scoring output did not make up for what the C’s did to the Italian sharpshooter in the fourth quarter, however.

The Thunder trailed just 95-91 when Gallinari re-entered the game at the 7:36 mark of the fourth quarter. Over the next five-plus minutes, the Celtics outscored the Thunder 15-10, building a nine-point lead in the hostile environment mostly with their efficiency on the offensive end. The visitors scored 15 points on 11 possessions during this run, a 1.36 points per possession mark (which would be the best in the NBA).

The formula for that success from Stevens? Attack Gallinari in any way possible.

Going after Gallinari was easily apparent on the biggest plays of the run as Walker drew Gallinari in switches on back-to-back possessions which led to 3s for the All-Star guard. That’s a familiar tactic for any guard when a slow-footed forward like Gallinari is on the floor. Walker starts here with a simple isolation into a pull-up 3.

On the next possession, Gallinari wants to avoid the switch to stay out of the isolation situation but Dennis Schroder can’t get through the pick until it’s too late to contest the Walker 3 well.

The secret to Boston’s success began far before these plays though. Boston went at Gallinari in some capacity on nine of their 11 offensive possessions during the 15-10 run, putting the offensive-minded forward through countless picks that punished the Thunder for their switching strategy. While the Celtics did not score on every possession during this run, going after Gallinari’s his lackluster defense repeatedly opened the door to easy looks in other parts of the floor as his teammates tried to compensate for him.

Let’s start here with the beginning of the stretch when Gallinari subs in. The Thunder figure they can hide him on Brad Wanamaker, the C’s weakest offensive threat in the game at that point among their perimeter players. However, the 29-year-old Wanamaker is still crafty and elects to slip the screen when he begins to set one for Walker here. Gallinari has to help initially to cut off the drive but he’s slow to recover back to Wanamaker after Walker makes the pass back to the open guard.

Wanamaker gives Gallinari a shot fake, drives to the rim and dishes it off to an open Theis for an easy layup when Nerlens Noel (Theis’ man) switches over. Easy bucket all thanks to Gallinari and strong execution by the C’s.

Stevens also did well to disguise his intentions of bringing Gallinari into an on-ball screen as well, giving the Thunder less flexibility to help Gallinari to avoid the switch. Watch here as Hayward sets a double screen, first for Jaylen Brown to get Gallinari switched onto him. Then, immediately he sets another one for Kemba, forcing another Gallinari/Walker matchup that ends up with an easy mid-range jumper over the forward.

Situations like these are what has made the Celtics’ offense so effective late in games this year. They have the top-ranked offense in the fourth quarter thanks to some great scheming from Stevens and terrific execution/decisionmaking from the players on the floor. The C’s followed the gameplan over and over in this situation against a good team and it produced results in the form of a win since there wasn’t really an answer for the Thunder without taking Gallinari off the floor. He was too valuable to their offense to do that for Billy Donovan, which made him an easy target for the C’s offense when the game mattered.

With the Celtics pulling off 10 wins in their last 11 games, their strengths are starting to shine more in games like this. They can flood the floor with five perimeter threats late in games when they want and that makes double teaming and switching a risky tactic for even the NBA’s best fourth-quarter defense. Strong coaching and versatile personnel are turning the C’s into a very legitimate contender in the East and that’s what we saw on Sunday in the midst of a gritty road win.