Meet the scram switch, aka the kickout switch:
The Houston Rockets' first switch leaves two alleged mismatches: Clint Capela on Donovan Mitchell, and Trevor Ariza on Rudy Gobert. But Houston has approached Golden State Warriors-level anticipation in executing a second switch behind that one: P.J. Tucker ditching Derrick Favors on the right block, and yanking Ariza off of Gobert. (Coaches call that a "scram" or "kickout" switch.)
That play ends in Joe Ingles meandering past James Harden, but Houston's entire defense is geared toward making secondary playmakers work one-on-one. An alarming number of the Utah Jazz's early possessions ended with Royce O'Neale trying to create something from nothing at the end of the shot clock.
Houston's switch-everything scheme is a nightmare for Utah. Quin Snyder calls his motion-based offense "advantage basketball." Each action is designed to earn the ball-handler an advantage -- some breathing space ahead of the defender trailing him. The next exchange between teammates -- a handoff, maybe -- should increase that gap, and then the next, until the Jazz worm their way into an open shot. A switching defense eliminates those gaps.
• Utah has remedies for this. The simplest one: Don't make it easy for Tucker to make that second switch by having his man cut into the paint at the exact moment Gobert or Favors rumbles down there.
• The Jazz can also have a quicker ball-handler -- Donovan Mitchell -- attack favorable matchups one-on-one, without a screen. Mitchell can probably beat any Houston player one-on-one, though Ariza, Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute make it hard. Anyone else? Take 'em, rook. If Mitchell finds Harden on him at the start of a possession, Utah doesn't have to mess around with any screening. If not, the Jazz don't have to work hard to hunt down Harden: Just have his guy screen for Mitchell, and invite the switch.
This drive-and-kick stuff probably works best when Utah goes small, with Jae Crowder (or even Ingles, who got some time at the 4 late in Game 1) sliding to power forward -- opening the floor. Those groups can also switch a lot of Houston's pick-and-roll actions on the other end without gifting Harden fatal mismatches. (Harden cooked Favors and Gobert one-on-one on switches, as everyone expected.)
• Of course, Utah going smaller only invites Houston to do the same. The Rockets played Paul, Harden and Eric Gordon together in Game 1, and tried Ryan Anderson at center -- their most interesting and explosive five-out trump card.
• Utah should prey on Anderson whenever he is in the game: Find him, get him switched onto dangerous ball-handlers, and let those guys work. Anderson lost weight, and improved on defense this season. He kept Utah's guards in front him a few times in Game 1. He's still the weakest link.
• As unreliable and maddening as they are, Alec Burks and Dante Exum might have a place in this series even if Ricky Rubio comes back. They are dynamic attackers who can beat guys one-on-one and (usually) make simple plays, even if Exum looks like he's on the verge of falling over or tossing the ball into the stands on every other drive.
• Utah can also tweak its motion offense to exploit the teensy openings switching exposes. They tried it a bit in Game 1. Screeners can slip out of picks early instead of setting them, zipping to the rim ahead of the switch. Utah did this with on-ball ball screens a few times: Someone would curl up to set a pick for Mitchell, only to abort it and veer toward the sideline -- a method of confusing the defense mid-switch.
It worked once. Houston sniffed it out after that. Utah will have to find more unpredictable methods. This is where the so-so playmaking of Favors and Gobert hurt them. The best way to out-think switches is to enter the ball to a big guy and have two guards screen for each other until the defense screws up. This is what Golden State does with Draymond Green.
• Utah's basic defense on Harden looked largely fine. They kept Gobert and Favors back toward the rim, chased Harden over picks, and conceded floaters. That is the general blueprint. It is usually not enough; Harden is cagier than ever in tight spaces, and Capela is a more nuanced finisher.
So Utah smartly had help defenders scrunch further in off Houston's so-so shooters -- Tucker, Ariza, Mbah a Moute.
That is another common anti-Houston tactic. Houston has had an answer for everything this season; Harden on this play sidearmed a skipping-rock pass to Tucker for an open-ish corner 3. But mixing all these strategies is about as well as Utah can do.
• There are other ways to catch Utah off guard, and leverage Gobert's preference for hanging in the paint. A promising one: As Paul or Harden dribbles on the right side, drawing attention, have Gordon zip off a pick from Capela on the other side -- and into a catch-and-shoot jumper.
• When Gobert creeps out higher against the pick-and-roll, Paul and Harden dribble right into him, and then snake sideways -- dragging Gobert with them, and solidifying a switch Utah wishes to avoid. Paul is perhaps the best in history at this nasty little trick.
• Utah is a slowpoke team, but it was ready in Game 1 to push whenever Houston missed a corner 3, or Harden bonked a layup. Houston in those scenarios often has four guys below the foul line on offense -- poorly prepared to weather a transition rush. Utah is smart to try to steal points like this. The Jazz can't beat the Rockets relying only on half-court offense.
Meanwhile, the scram went much differently in Boston:
• Perhaps the biggest question of this series was how much the Boston Celtics would chance having Al Horford match up with the Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid. In the first round, Embiid almost played Kelly Olynyk out of the series. Boston is a less dangerous offensive team with Aron Baynes at center, though Baynes was fantastic on both ends in Game 1 -- spacing to the corner on offense, and bodying up Embiid in the post so that Boston's other guys could stay home on 3-point shooters. (Yeah, Embiid ate his lunch in the third quarter, but Embiid is going to do that to everyone for stretches.)
When the Horford-Embiid matchup materialized, Boston ran Embiid through a gauntlet of pick-and-pops -- the right move. If Embiid sensed he could not recover to challenge Horford's 3-pointer, the Sixers switched -- leaving a guard on Horford. Horford has never been meaner in the post than in these playoffs. Philly would prefer not to have Marco Belinelli defend hm. Their answer? Try that same second switch Tucker and the Rockets execute so seamlessly:
Did you catch how Boston made that second switch much harder than Utah? Instead of rolling down the middle, Horford cuts down the side of the floor closest to Philly's other small defender -- JJ Redick -- and across the court from the bulkier guys Philly wants to send onto Horford (Dario Saric, Ben Simmons). The further that guy has to travel, the more likely a big gash opens in the defense mid-switch.
Boston might not have expected Philly to switch this way. The Sixers didn't bust this out much against Boston in the regular season. They preferred to front post mismatches, and send help from the baseline. That is likely what Boston expected. That is likely what Belinelli expected when Horford spun baseline on another possession, and ambled into an uncontested dunk:
Boston will be ready for this in Game 2. Philly may not even try it again. Horford probably didn't even have any of this in mind when he rolled down one side of the floor. He prefers that, and it places him closer to a convenient entry passer.
• Philly can also do better to avoid switching on the Horford pick-and-pop. They managed it a few times. Horford has become a really good 3-point shooter, shooting 43 percent this season, but he needs time to wind up. Embiid can get there if he tries, and he's not exhausted. (He gets exhausted fast.)
The Celtics make it harder when they run Embiid through second and even third pick-and-rolls in succession. Shane Larkin also provided a nice change of pace from Terry Rozier. Larkin is faster, and he used hesitation dribbles to pull Embiid deeper into the paint -- too deep to find Horford again.
If Boston wins the Horford-versus-Embiid minutes, they have a real shot to take this series.
• Philly's defense was a little off in Game 1. Robert Covington, normally a lockdown guy, lost Rozier a few times. Rozier is punishing every mistake right now. When Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward come back, Boston will have too many good perimeter players -- or at least too many that are either very expensive, or projected to be soon. It's hard to see both Smart and Rozier on this roster past next season's trade deadline.
• I get nervous anytime Boston sits Rozier and Horford together. If Marcus Morris isn't hitting Marcus Morris shots, the offense dies.
• Philly fans will paint Game 1 as a make-or-miss game. Boston fans will trumpet great defense as being responsible for the Sixers shooting 5-of-26 from deep. The truth is (duh) somewhere in between.
Twenty-six attempts is low. Only 12 of them were "wide open," per NBA.com. Only three came from the corners. Embiid taking more than Covington, Saric, Ersan Ilyasova and Belinelli is a win for Boston. The Celtics are attuned to Philly's best catch-and-shoot guys, and have the personnel to switch. (That also helps them withstand Simmons' transition bumrushes, since they don't have to worry as much about finding the right matchups. Help defenders were also ready around the foul line.)
At the same time, those four shooters, plus Redick, are unlikely to hit just 3-of-20 against any quality of defense. Philly underperformed its expected field-goal percentage -- based on shot location and defender proximity -- by a huge margin, per Second Spectrum tracking data.
• Horford and Semi Ojeleye struck a nice balance in guarding Simmons. They gave him a cushion, but not a gulf of open space. They generally met him a step or two below the 3-point arc. Simmons had some space to scan passing lanes, but not enough of a runway to get around those defenders, and feast at the rim.
• Boston caught Philly's weak-side defenders, Simmons and Embiid especially, napping a few times. Some of that was good spacing: When Boston puts four decent shooters on the floor, the choice of helping at the rim or staying home is a hard one.
Simmons can be better. Philly slotted him on Smart for much of the game, so that Simmons could sag back, clog passing lanes, and rove around. He just didn't do it as attentively as he can. That matchup brings risk elsewhere; it left Redick on Tatum, and Tatum is too good, too spinny and too big for Redick. If Philly goes that route again, Simmons has to make the trade off worth it by reaching peak disruption.
• My bet is that we see more of Simmons and Covington on Tatum in Game 2. Of course, Jaylen Brown's return could change this equation. The Milwaukee Bucks put their second-smallest starter, Malcolm Brogdon, on Brown in the first round, and Boston exploited Brown's size advantage here and there. They could do the same if Redick guards Brown.
• Embiid was perhaps a bit delayed ditching Baynes in the corner when Boston threatened the paint. Embiid planted himself on the edge of the paint -- the right starting point -- but he was a little late jetting toward the rim as the action headed there. Saric stuck needlessly to Ojeleye in the strong-side corner once instead of helping on a drive.
• In general, I liked when Boston went at that Tatum-Redick matchup in the flow of their offense instead of abandoning it to post Tatum. He can do that, but he is better catching on the move with Redick behind him, and then zipping right around a pick. Here he is about to catch Rozier's pass:
If Tatum slithers a few inches inside Redick, he's one quick dribble from extended layup range; Redick can't really bother him from behind. Brown is good at the same sorts of close-range, bullying drives.
• It was fun to see Tatum deploy some of Redick's favorite tactics against him. On a few possessions, Boston put Tatum in the corner, and set a monster double screen for him. How many thousands of times have we watched Redick scurry around picks like that? At least once, Redick prepared by planting himself on Tatum's back, so that he could avoid the picks and stay attached to Tatum's hip:
Tatum responded just as Redick would have: with a backdoor cut.
Tatum's versatility is outrageous. He's barely 20. In one game, you will see him play the role of Redick-style off-ball shooter; post up smaller guys; score via isolations, including with his absolutely lethal step-back; and run a usable pick-and-roll. He's tall and rangy and good at all that stuff, and it's just not fair.
Forget about LeBron for a second. Can you imagine if Philly somehow lands Kawhi Leonard or Paul George this summer? You know they'll try. That Boston-Philly rivalry would be vicious. They would be ready to leave the rest of the Eastern Conference in the dust for 10 years. Insert Sad Giannis Face here.
• Philly might be able to pick on Tatum on the other end, at least when he's on Saric. Saric snuck around Tatum for a couple of offensive rebounds in Game 1, and he has a solid post game. Boston toyed with sliding Tatum elsewhere. Something to watch.
• Ditto for Saric guarding Horford. Can Horford get traction there?
• When Philly plays Ilyasova at center, the Sixers might want to spread the floor, hand the ball to Simmons up top, and let him attack one-on-one -- as the Bucks did (though not nearly enough) with Antetokounmpo.
• Is it worth trying Richaun Holmes in some of those non-Embiid minutes outside garbage time?