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How the Celtics will continue to stop LeBron James in Game 4

It took the entire team acting as LeBron stoppers to slow down the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offense in Game 3. Can the Celtics do it again?

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

They said it couldn’t be done. They said that he can’t be stopped, that he’s the King. Catchphrases like ‘You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him’ were rehashed, unfavorable comparisons to Space Jam were invoked but the Celtics stepped up in Game 3 to come away with one of the most unlikely victories in recent playoffs history.

Minus their star point guard and on the back of a historic loss at home, the Boston Celtics came to Cleveland as more than just underdogs; they were completely counted out by many in the NBA community before the game had even begun.

What’s more, the Celtics managed to do what no one else had been able to do for this entire Playoffs run: they stopped LeBron, holding the Cleveland star to one of his worst playoffs performance of recent memory. James put the onus on himself saying after the game, "me personally, I didn't have it. My teammates did a great job of keeping us in the game, building that lead. But me personally, I didn't have it. That's all I've got to say about my performance.”

But the Celtics defense deserves more than a little bit of credit for being able to hold LeBron to just 11 points in 45 minutes on the floor.

Somehow, with the deck stacked against them and their backs against the wall, the Celtics snuck away with the win in Game 3. Marcus Smart was phenomenal, the final shot from Avery Bradley was truly unbelievable and Jonas Jerebko helped the whole team find their fire. But more than anything this game saw an amazing defensive effort from the Celtics who were basically able to completely shut down King James in the fourth quarter.

FGA attempted by LeBron James Game 3 from stats.nba.com

This is an uncharacteristic shot chart for LeBron James and not just because of the disproportionate number of misses. Game 3 saw Lebron take only 13 shots in 45 minutes and among his misses are several desperation long-range attempts with the Celtics’ defense, for the most part, able to keep James out of the paint.

In the second half the Celtics used their own version of the ‘Jordan Rules’ to stifle LeBron. Although in this case it wasn’t so much a case of overloading their defense on one player as it was hitting their defensive rotations with pinpoint accuracy and playing tough head-to-head defense for every minute of the final stretch.

In this play Jae doesn’t have to act as a ‘LeBron stopper’ he just has to stay on LeBron while the rest of the Celtics maintain a dogged defense on each of their men. Even with plenty of time on the shot-clock the Cavs offense doesn’t really get a chance to set-up and with options limited, LeBron is forced to take the contested mid-range jumper he wanted to avoid at the beginning of the possession.

The Celtics hit their marks and rotated with such precision that at times their defense seemed almost clairvoyant. Over and over again the Celtics defenders were in position at the Cavs’ preferred shooting spots before the offense had even thought about getting set.

After Lebron sets up this play the Celtics defense ease off James as he’s obviously not the focus of the set. Still staying close to their individual match ups though the Celtics’ defenders cut off each of Cleveland’s options stopping several drives and attempts from the Cavs’ preferred positions with a swarming defense. Eventually the Cavs are forced to settle for another contested mid-range jumper, which Love misses. With their players in position near the hoop the Celtics are able to box out Cleveland’s front court and grab the rebound.

Perhaps what was most impressive about the Celtics’ efforts was that no single player was responsible, rather it truly was a team effort. Constant switching and rotations were the key to the Celtics’ defense. So, at times it was Jae Crowder acting as the designated ‘LeBron stopper’ at other times Marcus Smart stepped up and on more than a few occasions it was Al Horford or even Kelly Olynyk battling with James.

In this play Crowder and Olynyk communicate perfectly switching onto and off of James depending on if he’s sitting outside the arc or driving to the ring. Tristan Thompson doesn’t know where to go as he’s cut off at every angle and yet again the whole Celtics squad isolates their individual opponents and leaves James with limited options allowing Olynyk to step up as the unlikely LeBron stopper.

Most of the defensive focus stayed rightly on LeBron, though the decision to maintain strong rotations over and above trying to double and triple-team James on every possession meant that the Celtics still bothered shooters and were in position to stop drives from any of the Cavs.

Maybe more importantly, the Celtics also maintained their intensity on both ends of the floor, acting equally aggressive on defense and offense.

The Celtics were physical on both ends of the floor with Horford in particular acting as a facilitator by out-muscling opposing defenders. This play sees Horford help Smart get open for one of his 7 successful three-point shots during Game 3.

Of course a lot has been made of this increased defensive effort coinciding with Isaiah Thomas’ absence. But to me it seems obvious that missing their star point guard didn’t so much allow the Celtics to defend better as it did necessitate a stronger defensive effort. Plus it allowed the Celtics to utilize a variety of sets and rotations that the Cavaliers weren’t used to guarding.

Regardless, putting in a repeat performance will require everyone to play at their highest level. Because truth be told there is no real secret game plan or specific set-up that can stop LeBron James, no ‘Jordan Rules’ or ‘Secret Stuff.’ The only thing you can do is put in maximum effort, stick to your rotations, and play to win.

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