The Celtics Have a Bam Adebayo Problem

The Celtics’ biggest question mark to start the season was their lack of size. At the time, few expected Bam Adebayo to be the center that would eventually expose this. His burgeoning defense, highlighted by that ridiculous block in Game 1, has received the most attention. Yet his offense has been just as much of a headache for the Celtics. He has bullied Boston’s smaller players when facing up or rolling to the rim, and constantly adjusted to the different ways the Celtics have guarded him.

The Heat have multiple ways to burn teams. Kevin Arnovitz described their offense on the Lowe Post as having “three pillars”. They lean on pick-and-rolls (often led by Dragic), Jimmy Butler isolation plays, and Bam Adebayo facilitating from the elbows. The Celtics came into the series with a plan for each of these three pillars. When guarding the pick and roll in Game 1 and 2, they brought Theis up to the nail. The weak side defender tagged Bam. Pretty simple stuff.

When Bam facilitated from the elbow, Theis yet again went to the nail to contain the drive. The Celtic getting screened locked and trailed the handoff recipient.

The Celtics lived with a few tough Duncan Robinson makes or fouls. They did not want to trap Robinson, as that often leads to a 4-on-3 situation for Bam.

Halfway through the second game, the Celtics were up 13 and seemed to have figured out each of these three pillars. Then, the Heat started to run a hybrid of the two pillars that involve Bam.

The Hybrid DHO/Pick and Roll

It first appeared in the second quarter when Kendrick Nunn received a handoff from Bam, who immediately dove to the rim. The Celtics were in position to defend the dribble handoff, but the weak side defender Grant Williams did not anticipate Bam’s roll and was a step late. 

The Heat clawed back into the game in the third quarter and leaned on this play, catching the Celtics on the weak side a few times. 

What makes this play especially difficult to guard is that Bam is rolling from the elbow as opposed to from behind the arc like in a traditional pick and roll. This gives the Celtics less time than normal to detect that he is rolling and rotate accordingly. Meanwhile, if they rotate before he hands the ball off he will find the open shooter.

This is the unique skill set of Bam Adebayo on full display. He possesses a rare combination of elite roll gravity and elite passing from the elbow. I cannot think of another player in recent history as proficient as him in both areas, and Miami created a wrinkle to utilize his gifts.

To combat being caught in limbo on the weak side, the Celtics started switching this action in Game 3. This gave the weak side help more time to arrive while the defender switched onto Bam simply looked to impede the lob. 

Of course, Bam isn’t Bam for nothing, and soon learned that he could get to the rim faking a dribble handoff, baiting a switch, and driving through the seams that ensued. 

While this led to a few buckets, it is slightly easier to anticipate than him diving without the ball because he cannot move quite as fast while dribbling. Grant Williams detects the fake in this play and is able to rotate weak side.

The Heat will adjust. In this play, Grant is in position to rotate because Butler is in the paint. It will be much harder to rotate and help on Bam fake-handoff drives with all of his teammates spaced out to three. I expect the Heat to try this tonight.

What does this mean for the Celtics in Game 4?

The Celtics cannot rely on stopping the Miami pillars to tie the series. The Heat, and Bam in particular, are too slippery and adjust too quickly. There is even merit to the idea that Boston has not taken Jimmy Butler’s best punch, as Miami’s star wing has yet to attempt more than 14 shots in any one game this series. Boston will have to fight offense with offense, which seems more possible with the return of Gordon Hayward. That being said, how the Celtics look to limit Bam’s ever-evolving elbow actions will play a key role in who wins Game 4.

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