In the NBA, you have to pick your poison, especially when you're facing a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love are stars because alone, they're game changers. Teams have to game plan against them because they command double and sometimes even triple teaming. Together on a super team, beating them is even more difficult, but Brad Stevens' strategy was simple.
One of the Celtics strengths is one-on-one defense. You can put a Jeff Green or Brandon Bass on LeBron or sic Avery Bradley or Rajon Rondo on Uncle Drew. Last night, Stevens used a lot of single coverage on both James and Irving and in many instances, they were happy to ISO on their defenders, to mixed results.
Stevens employed a similar strategy in the pick and rolls: keep everything in front of you. Don't hedge or ice and give the ball handler a chance to reverse the ball for an open three. That meant going under screens and daring them to shoot mid-range jumpers with the Boston bigs (particularly Olynyk) back-pedaling into the paint. It would eliminate their ability to generate offense for their teammates and long rebounds could create fast break opportunities on the other end.
To some extent, it worked. At the end of the third quarter, the Celtics had a 17-point lead. LeBron had 31, but 9 of those points came in transition. He was 8-for-18 in the half court and Green's ISO matador defense was doing the job. In PnR's, Olynyk would hang back in the paint and dare him to shoot. Instead of trying to get the ball out of LeBron's hands, Stevens eliminated the playmaking ability of LeBron's game and forced him to be a jump shooter.
After 36 minutes, Love and Irving only had 11 and 12 respectively and Boston had matched Cleveland at the free throw line with 19 FTA to their 20. It should have been smooth sailing until the buzzer.
Then the fourth quarter happened.
There were some awful calls that had Boston in the penalty early by the 8:40 mark and lead to 17 free throw attempts, some low energy offensive possessions for the Celtics down the stretch and a bobble at the end, but the Celtics really didn't change their defensive scheme. With the lead at 19, Kyrie drilled three consecutive threes with either Rondo or Turner going under a screen or Bradley getting picked off with no help from Zeller.
We've all heard about teams living and diving with the jumper, but that also applies to defenses. With Zeller defending against the drive, Kyrie has all the space in the world to get off those shots. And when Bradley does break through a screen, he gets called for a foul on a three pointer.
Now, some of this is just Kyrie being Kyrie and a superstar getting hot. That's why he signed a max extension last summer and why LeBron left an aging Dwyane Wade back in Miami.
And late in the game, James took over.
In the first three quarters, LeBron ran a lot of pick and roll with Anderson Varejao and Olynyk could afford to retreat back into the paint because he was in effect defending LeBron and a rolling Varejao until Green could recover from the screen. But late in the game, it's Sullinger that finds himself in a screen situation with James and Love. Instead of rolling, Love slips the screen and pops to the perimeter. Sully has a lot of space to make up, desperately contends a Love three forcing Rondo to help, and Love finds what's-his-face in the corner. This play encapsulates what Stevens worried about. Against OKC on Wednesday, Boston was consistently late on rotations and Anthony Morrow feasted on Boston's defense in the fourth quarter. Last night, he opted to stay home on a lot of his coverages and only gave up this crucial three and an earlier one to Dion Waiters.
Here, Sullinger decides to show on the pick and roll, but he doesn't show hard enough to take away that driving lane from LeBron. It doesn't help that Green takes a bad angle on the recovery either. Again, it's just a perfect example of what can happen against a player of LeBron's caliber when you aggressively play against the pick. It's been a problem all year for Boston and with Phoenix coming to town on Monday, the team better be better because the Suns are murder with that high middle PnR.
And just because I'm a masochist, here's another failed stop against LeBron. In Green's defense, he guesses correctly that James will go to his strong hand and reject the screen. LeBron hooks him with a hard elbow and has an open lane to the rim for an and-1. It kills me that Sully is totally out of position here.
What's been strange to me over the last eight games is Boston's abandonment of what they had initially talked about in training camp. After Media Day, Kevin wrote about how the Celtics were going to be much more aggressive on defenseand we saw a lot of that during the preseason when they were one of the best defensive teams in the league. In home-and-homes with Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, and Brooklyn (not exactly the offensive elite of the NBA), Boston put up pretty good numbers against the Atlantic Division. They finished second in the NBA, only allowing 91.9 ppg with a more active D. It's possible that an early season slate of Monta Ellis, James Jarden, Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, Reggie Jackson, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving have forced the Celtics to be a little more cautious--and the loss of Marcus Smart shouldn't be overlooked--but they'll be facing more of the same in November.