It’s hard to take very much away from a game in which one team shoots 5-for-26 from behind the three-point line and the other team shoots 17-for-35. The Philadelphia 76ers outpaced the Boston Celtics from inside the arc and from the foul line, but overcoming a 36-point swing from beyond the arc is going to be damn near impossible for any team. Still, there are important aspects to Game 1 other than their outside shooting that will need to be addressed by Philadelphia, the most important of which is Marco Belinelli’s play on the defensive end and whether he has a place on the floor in this series. Belinelli played 28 minutes in Monday’s series opener; the 76ers were outscored by 23 points in those 28 minutes as Belinelli was unable to keep up the hot shooting from the Miami series in Game 1 and put out his normal defensive effort en route to Boston blowing open their lead and never letting Philadelphia back in the game.
As Milwaukee found out in Game 7, when they essentially lost any chance at winning the series the moment Tyler Zeller stepped on the court, even this compromised Boston team is very, very good at punishing teams’ worst defenders. It wasn’t reserved just for Belinelli in Game 1; the Celtics went after J.J. Redick in his matchup with Jayson Tatum (a matchup the 76ers will also need to revisit sooner rather than later). However, once Belinelli checked in as the third guard, the Celtics immediately went to work against him, including him in the main action nearly every time down the floor in order to take advantage of his lack of quickness and general malaise on that end of the floor.
I’ve written previously about Boston’s double drag set in early offense, which once again made an appearance on Monday night. Boston deployed it a few times to involved Belinelli in the main screening action and forcing him to switch onto Terry Rozier:
As Rozier brings the ball up the right side of the floor, Tatum comes to set the first of two ball screens for him, making it almost impossible for Redick to stick to Rozier. Joel Embiid is guarding Aron Baynes and isn’t going to step out to switch onto Rozier, so that leaves Belinelli, who has zero chance of defending Rozier in isolation in the middle of the floor.
In the second half, the Celtics came back to EO Double Drag a few times and got a good shot on each opportunity:
The same staggered ball screens force Belinelli to switch onto Rozier, but this time the Philadelphia defense collapses into the paint and Rozier is able to kick it to Baynes on the wing, who hands to Marcus Smart for a wide-open three. Philadelphia was helping off Smart all night and while he hit this three and one other, he bricked six more and generally mucked up the Celtics offense any time he didn’t have the ball in his hands. With Rozier playing as well as he has been as the primary ball handler, it’s going to be interesting to see how Brad Stevens chooses to deploy Smart—Philadelphia won’t guard him all series if he’s off the ball but taking the ball out of Rozier’s hands on too many possessions won’t be appetizing to Stevens either.
A few possessions later, the Celtics get another opportunity to pick at Belinelli using the same double drag set, this time out of a sidelines-out-of-bounds (SLOB) situation.
The theme is the same: Tatum sets the first ball screen, Belinelli switches onto Rozier, and Rozier makes Philadelphia pay, this time finding Baynes in the corner for an open three as Ersan Ilyasova had to gap off him into the lane to stop Rozier from turning Belinelli into barbecue chicken.
If Philadelphia tried to double Rozier, Tatum was open on the pop at the three-point line:
Robert Covington doesn’t switch immediately, instead opting to try to pressure Rozier into a quick turnover, but the third-year guard calmly backed off, picked the ball up, and found Tatum in the corner. Tatum couldn’t hit the ensuing three-pointer, but that’s a shot the Celtics will take every time down out of EO Double Drag if they can get it.
Philadelphia is going to have a lot of trouble hiding Belinelli in this series, which may lead Brett Brown to the conclusion that he can’t afford to have Belinelli on the floor for major minutes against the Celtics. T.J. McConnell gives the 76ers a more conventional positional look and less offensive explosion but isn’t as treacherous defensively or perhaps Markelle Fultz will get a shot at using his length defensively to bother Rozier on the perimeter, though playing Ben Simmons and Fultz together could be nightmarish offensively for Philadelphia. Whatever the solution is, Belinelli is certainly going to have to shoot better than 3-for-9 in order to create any positive value for the 76ers or they’ll have to go away from him altogether.