LeBron James has been just about unguardable for the last 10 years. During that time, he’s given great defensive teams fits all by himself. But this iteration of LeBron is a little bit different. Now he’s surrounded by some of the best shooters in the NBA. The Cavs shot 38.4% from three this year, good for 2nd in the league. Teammates like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and Kyle Korver have given James a huge gift: plenty of space to do whatever he wants. Game 1 showed how difficult Cleveland’s offense is to deal with when they spread the floor and give the ball to LeBron.
LeBron James scored 15 points in the first quarter, and every basket came at the rim.
His athleticism is obviously the biggest factor, but his teammates help him out too. Kyle Korver is a guy that impacts a defense based only on the threat of him shooting. Look at how tightly the Celtics guard him away from the ball. Smart is absolutely glued to him here. He only gives a half-hearted swipe at the ball before darting back to Korver. Smart can’t provide any help behind Olynyk, and LeBron easily drives to the basket.
Korver didn’t even attempt a shot in the first quarter, but he still affected the game. Kyrie can pose a similar threat. In this play, both of them are in the corner. Bradley and Smart aren’t even looking at the ball because of how focused they are on locking off Irving/Korver. This opens up the floor, allowing LeBron to get a full head of steam charging at the basket. Horford has no shot to contain him here.
The threat of Cleveland’s shooters was even a problem when LeBron wasn’t the ball-handler.
Jaylen Brown got roasted for this decision, but his reaction is understandable on some level. Nobody wants to give up wide-open threes to the Cavs. Throughout the game, you could see players proving ineffective or nonexistent help because of this concern.
Some part of this is just bad defense. But the scariest part is that the Cavs annihilated the Celtics without hitting that many threes. Only Kevin Love was feeling it from beyond the arc. Once Korver and Kyrie start hitting open looks, well:
The Celtics are left with an impossible choice. Do you crowd the paint with help defenders and risk LeBron kicking out to open shooters? Or do you stay at home and let James drive with ease? There isn’t an easy answer here. It takes an incredible effort to show help and furiously close out to the shooter in the corner. The Celtics have good defenders and athletes on the perimeter, so they might be able to balance this. Ideally Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk won’t have to defend James one-on-one either. If Boston can prevent LeBron from driving at will and avoid giving up a ton of threes, maybe they can even take advantage of poor defenders like Korver on the other end. To avoid a quick series exit, the Celtics to need to hit that thermal exhaust port with everything they have.