Triangulating the Celtics' defense

The Lakers need to stick with their game plan to beat Boston's 'loaded' defense

Updated: June 2, 2010, 1:48 PM ET
By Dave Miller | Special to

The Boston Celtics are a tough opponent in any postseason series because they are a defensive-minded collection of individuals who have bought into a system. Each member of the team seems to pride himself on execution, and to understand his connection to the other players on the floor, on every possession.

The Celtics play what I call a "loaded" team defense. In this system there are five men guarding the ball at any one time. The defender on the ball is flanked by two defenders, each one pass away on either side, as well as two help-side defenders positioned in an open "pistol" stance, pointing at their assigned man and the ball.

This is similar to the defense the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets played under Jeff Van Gundy. Tom Thibodeau, a Van Gundy disciple, now coaches the Boston defense.

[+] EnlargeCeltics Defense
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Celtics are a group of defensive-minded players all buying into the same system. This provides a particularly tough set of challenges for the Lakers.

So what is a "loaded" team defense? It simply means bringing a weakside defender to the strong side of the floor, giving you an extra defender to stop the ball, and it arose based on the following presumption: NBA players like to hold on to the ball and create shots on their own more than they like to trust the flow of an offense.

Capitalizing on this tendency, a "loaded" defense ensures you always have an extra defender to harass players on dribble-drives, as well as post-ups, and to clog the middle of the lane.

And what must the Lakers do to effectively counter Boston's "loaded" defense?

For starters, Kobe must be an MVP playmaker. His level of play right now is off the charts. He can't afford to go away from his own hot hand. But he must continue to take what the defense gives him, and be willing to set the table for his teammates. He must realize Paul Pierce will be his primary defender, but Pierce will always, always have help one pass away on either side of him. Three Celtics defenders will "key" strongside on No. 24 on every possession, with two help-side defenders ready to engage should Bryant get through into open space.

The Lakers also need to trust and run their offense. Move the ball from side to side. Make the Boston defense work and expend energy for the full run of a shot clock whenever possible. Coming down the floor and taking a one-pass jump shot plays right into the Celtics' hands.

The triangle offense will naturally create an overload when the Lakers run their strongside guard "fill" action. In the triangle, offensive players are taught to pop to the ball -- to find space and make themselves potential passing options for the ball handler. The lead guard is instructed to hit the first open man he sees. If that man has a good shot -- one that he takes and makes in practice -- he takes it. If not, he should move the ball crisply and get it to the next open man.

By just running their usual sets and staying on script, three Lakers end up on the strong side of the floor. Picture Kobe Bryant on the left wing with the ball, Derek Fisher cutting to the strongside corner (left) after passing it from the top of the key, and Andrew Bynum down on the left block. That's your triangle. When the Lakers swing the ball to the weak side it creates a shot, or driving lanes to the basket, forcing the Celtics to scramble, as opposed to being able to focus ten eyeballs on the strong side of the floor.

To contend with Boston, it is imperative that the Lakers don't force the issue offensively or stall the ball by getting selfish or stubborn. Boston's defense counts on such slow-downs and hesitations. By moving the ball, the Lakers make sure all their players are involved offensively, and in doing that all the players on the floor command the attention of the Boston defense. When you have diversified offensive player movement, defenders must track that movement and cannot focus solely on the ball.

To do this, the Lakers have to play ego-less basketball. Play the percentages. Don't go for the spectacular play. This series will be about managing the degree of difficulty, staying disciplined and ignoring "ooh and ahh" moves. You cannot shove the game down the throats of a defense that is aggressive on the ball and schooled in plugging driving lanes. One-on-one plays against the Celtics are all too often one-on-three plays. Those are bad odds.

The Lakers can work effectively against the Celtics' defense by doing what Boston does: playing as a team.

Dave Miller is a former NBA and college assistant basketball coach. He coached on Byron Scott's staff with the New Orleans Hornets and collegiately at USC, West Point and the University of Texas.