6’3, 6’6, 6’8, 6’10, 6’9.
5’9, 6’2, 6’6, 6’10, 6’9.
That’s the tale of the tape between Boston and Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s even more accentuated when you look at the teams’ best players. Isaiah Thomas is lightning quick and can score inside and out, but bottle that speed up in a phone booth and it’s negated. LeBron James, on the other hand, is a moving train on a one-way track The Cavs have a distinct size and strength advantage in this series and in Game 1, they eliminated one of the Celtics’ by stripping away home court. While the Celtics still have a puncher’s chance, they’re going to have to figure out how to land a some jabs and maybe a haymaker or two in Game 2 to make this a series.
After practice, Isaiah Thomas was asked about his confidence going into Game 2. He replied, "We're not scared of Cleveland. They're not the Monstars. They're not on 'Space Jam.' They lace up their shoes just like us.” You have to admire that fearlessness of the newly minted All-NBA 2nd Teamer, but the Celtics will definitely have to make adjustments if Playoff LeBron continues to be this aggressive.
In their lone win against Cleveland in the regular season, Boston was content switching everything and daring LeBron to beat them in isolation. That worked moderately well in that single game, but in a seven game series against a more motivated James, it’ll be trouble and we saw that Wednesday night. Here’s Lebron’s shot chart from Game 1:
He was 12-for-17 on contested field goals because most of his buckets came in the paint and restricted area. It didn’t matter who was covering him; whether it was Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, or Marcus Smart, everybody was a mismatch.
Here’s Game 1 in one play. LeBron and Tristan Thompson run a simple pick-and-roll to force the switch between Kelly Olynyk and Jaylen Brown, James backs up—clowns Kelly with the dribble between his legs—and drives past him for the easy layup. Yes, it’s an indication of just how much of a problem he’s going to be in this series, but it also shows Boston’s defensive strategy at least going into the conference finals: even if it’s a mismatch in isolation, they’re not going to double or help off shooters.
And it wasn’t just on LeBron. Kevin Love had his best playoff performance of his career with 32 points and 12 rebounds. Most of his scoring came on wide open threes, but when he did get a smaller player on him in the post, he took advantage.
The Celtics are going to see bully ball the entire series. After a grueling seven games against John Wall, Bradley Beal, and the Wizards, they’ve shown that they’re capable of handling a talented back court, but Cleveland’s size and speed from 3 to 5 is a real problem. After practice, the Celtics talked about having a five-man defensive mindset when it comes to stopping LeBron:
"Doubling is really scary against these guys, but it may be necessary," Stevens said. "The conundrum is, do you double and risk giving up those easy step-in 3s and the rebounds? Or do you try to stay at home and do the best you can and make them make a tough shot? It's all easier said than done, but we've got to figure out our best avenue quickly."
In Game 1, Boston just didn’t match LeBron’s aggressiveness to get to the rim with their own defensive fight to stop him.
Crowder seems tentative on whether he’s trapping LeBron or switching on to Kyrie Irving. That sets up a 2-on-1 situation with the trailing Tyler Zeller.
Even here when Jaylen Brown and Al Horford decide to ICE the Love-LeBron PnR, Horford’s footwork and Crowder’s help are just too weak and too slow to challenge.
As Stevens suggests, there defensive strategy boils down to a picking their poison: cut off penetration and live or die on the kick out or rely on defenders to make it more difficult for LeBron and stay home on shooters. He mentioned “mixing it up appropriately, but not overdoing it” and to do that, he’ll rely more heavily on players that are closer to James’ physique.
Stevens hinted that the 6’10 Jonas Jerebko could see some action, but it’s Jaylen Brown that will likely platoon with Jae Crowder. Remember back in November when a depleted Celtics team lost a close game in Cleveland without Horford and Crowder? Brown had 19 points in only his 5th NBA game, but more importantly, he looked unafraid of facing LeBron. James said at the time, ““I think he’s a really good talent, and that’s why he was drafted so high. He’s a strong kid. You can see he knows how to play the game.” Well, the Celtics are going to need Brown to be “strong” again if not stronger and Brown sounds ready for the task.
"He (James) laces his shoes up like I lace mine up. Coming out, playing basketball and trying to make it tough for him. I feel that's my job."
Told that Horford had suggested Brown might deserve more playing time moving forward, Brown said he'd be ready for anything.
"If Coach tells me, I'm going to be ready to guard whoever," Brown said. "If it's the waterboy, I'm guarding him, too. It doesn't matter to me."
But this is no waterboy. This is LeBron James who seems to have found another gear at age 32 after averaging nearly 38 minutes a game in the regular season. James has now played 8,764 minutes in his career in the playoffs. Jaylen has 150 under his belt and none will be more important as the 20-year-old laces them up tonight for Game 2.