The Celtic defense has been dominant so far in the ECF, and they are just a couple wins away from knocking off LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
The Boston Celtics are growing up right before our eyes. We thought their injury-plagued regular season and first round adversity meant they weren’t ready to compete, but it turns out those challenges prepared them far better for this moment than we expected.
The Celtics took care of business at home and are up 2-0 as they travel to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday. Through the first two games, Boston had their share of highlight dunks, silky crossovers, and pull-up threes, but the catalyst behind their dominant start has come on the other side of the ball. The league’s best regular season defense has maintained their dominance into the postseason and held LeBron James and the league’s fifth-best offense in check.
Michael Dwyer - AP Photo
When an offense uncharacteristically struggles in a playoff game, our first instinct is usually to ask what they did poorly. But in doing so, we can miss what their opponent did well.
Game 1 was far from the first time the Cavaliers faced off against a switching-based defense, but the Celtics utilized that strategy masterfully. Boston’s starting lineup features four guys who could all do a reasonable job of guarding any of Cleveland’s starters. Terry Rozier is that fifth starter, and his lack of size and strength make him exploitable on defense. Cleveland did their best to do just that, but Boston did an even better job of helping Rozier in those tough situations.
The key to attacking a switching defense is running screens to force the defense’s weak link onto your best offensive weapons. It’s simple in theory, but an elite defense can all but eliminate those mismatches. After almost immediately falling down by double-digits in Game 1, Cleveland’s main focus became forcing Rozier to switch onto either LeBron or Kevin Love in the post.
Leaving Rozier on an island in either of those matchups is immediate death for the Celtics, but Boston worked hard to counter those mismatches. Sometimes they preemptively got a more favorable defender — like Marcus Morris, Jaylen Brown, or Al Horford — to switch with Rozier before the Cavs could get the ball into the mismatch.
When it works, this scramming strategy is extremely effective, but it isn’t always easy. That more favorable defender can often be stuck switching off of an open shooter in the opposite corner. Leaving a player like Jeff Green or Tristan Thompson is a risk the Celtics are willing to live with, but leaving Kyle Korver or George Hill open for 2-3 seconds is a much riskier proposition.
When that preemptive switch wasn’t available, Boston tried to quickly double or rotate a help defender to protect the rim. A lurking Horford or Morris usually was enough to incentivize LeBron to make a quick decision and swing it to another player for a better look.
With fewer than two seconds on the shot clock LeBron should have shot, but Horford waiting for him at the rim triggered his instinct to find the open man. That was Cleveland’s only 24-second violation of Game 1, but Boston’s sustained defensive effort consistently forced the Cavs to take bad shots late in the clock.
Boston deserves praise for how well they defended in Game 1. They were fantastic. But Cleveland’s offense deserves an equal share of criticism. Starting with the most obvious, Game 1 was LeBron’s worst playoff game in a long time. It was certainly his worst playoff performance this postseason, and you could argue it was his worst since the 2011 NBA Finals.
He had 15 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, but added seven turnovers — he had eight in the entire Toronto series — and went 0-5 from three. Many of the decisions that he made were the correct ones in principle, but they weren’t the plays his team needed in that moment. Instead of tormenting overmatched players like he did against the Raptors, LeBron was content to find open(ish) shooters and settle for perimeter jumpers.
When LeBron settled, the Cavs settled and their results bore that out. Cleveland ended the game with just 38 points in the paint, seven points in transition, and they shot just 15.4 percent from three; a recipe for the unmitigated disaster that became Game 1.
Charles Krupa - AP Photo
At the start of Game 2, it looked like the Cavs figured out Boston’s defense. Or, more accurately, it looked like LeBron did.
In just the first quarter, LeBron had 21 points on 8-13 shooting. He was attacking mismatches, making ridiculous fadeaway jumpers, and playing with a confidence and aggression that he usually saves for games in Canada.
But Boston held on through the rough waters of LeBron’s early dominance. They missed some rotations and allowed Cleveland to run in transition more than Brad Stevens would have liked, but they held all non-LeBron Cavaliers to 30 points at halftime and were down by just seven.
While Boston’s 27-point turnaround in the second half might lead you to believe they made wholesale changes at halftime, they really just stuck to what they knew would work. They kept the same strategy, just improved the execution. Once Boston made it their mission to eliminate Cleveland’s open looks, they were lights out.
Since the Cavs held a 9-point lead with 10:00 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, it was all Celtics pic.twitter.com/GxxtrCDcwN— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2018
Cleveland’s offense fell back into their same bad habits from Game 1: settling for perimeter jumpers and allowing Boston’s defense to control the game. The Cavs shot just 4 of 21 from outside the paint in the second half with a Celtic there to contest the shot nearly every time.
With all that said, one essential caveat from Game 2 is LeBron’s neck injury. After a collision with Taum late in the first half, LeBron briefly went to the locker room to treat what was described as a neck strain. While he returned to the action after just a few in-game minutes, he didn’t look nearly as aggressive and locked-in as he did in the first quarter. Only LeBron knows how much of an impact his neck played on the Cavs waning down the stretch, but it is worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the series.
Charles Krupa - AP Photo
We often run a risk of overreacting to a 2-0 series lead, but this time we might risk underreacting. LeBron’s decade-long Eastern Conference dominance has become so ingrained in our assumptions that it’s hard to imagine the Cavs not making this a competitive series. But if we use all of the information Cleveland has given us this season — outside of the two-week stretch against the Raptors — that would be a foolish assumption.
The Cavs are a flawed team, we knew that. But few realized just how well Boston’s defense was designed to stop them. We’ve just seen the Celtics destroy the Cavs when LeBron played poorly and then immediately follow it up with a 13-point victory in a game when he put up 42-12-10.
Not only do the Celtics believe they can beat the Cavaliers, they know they can. They’ve just proven it twice in convincing fashion. They are on the doorstep of the NBA Finals and, if their defense from Games 1 and 2 travels to Cleveland, we will very quickly have a new Eastern Conference champion.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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