Well, that was fun.
The 4-1 series win will never do the justice of showing how competitive the series was, but the fact that Boston is even at this point is still bewildering to just about anyone outside of the 617. We’re at a point where you can almost pencil in Jayson Tatum dropping 20 plus, Al Horford has opened the eyes of his naysayers, Scary Terry Rozier is an actual thing, Jaylen Brown is turning into one of the most complete players in the game, Marcus Smart is... well Marcus Smart, and Brad Stevens has this team executing flawlessly at the end of games.
This Celtics team has been able to rely on versatility, defense, and execution to lift them all the way into the Eastern Conference Finals without the two players they went into camp building their entire offense around.
This Eastern Conference Finals will be their most formidable test. LeBron James has no intention of losing to kids and the once left for dead Cavaliers are suddenly playing their best basketball of the year. But this series, like every series in the playoffs, will come down to matchups. Though the Celtics made quick work of the Sixers, the last two games of the series exposed a potential area where the Cavaliers could look to exploit Boston.
When it comes to the Cavaliers offense, there’s a misconception that it’s all about LeBron James just dribbling the air out of the ball and trying to make a play. It’s not entirely false; the team is built to maximize LeBron James, but the way in which they do it is to diabolically target mismatches in a way that is only rivaled by the Rockets. Here’s an example:
The Toronto Raptors decided to play big against the Cavaliers small lineups. In return, the Cavaliers use Love similar to how you would imagine a wing player. He comes down off a screen from the top of the key from George Hill (something we’ll get to later), and it throws Jonas Valanciunas off guard who is not used to defending guys on the perimeter in that way. The play is even more difficult because if you’re a team that “auto switches,” you can find yourself in the unflattering business of having a member of your back court trying to guard Love in the post.
So, back to the screener, the Cavaliers are great at using their backcourt guys to screen for their stars. The last two plays were from George Hill, but something the Cavaliers use frequently is a James-Korver pick that is equally as deadly.
The defense is in a compromising position here. Hard trap or double gives Korver an open look, try to ICE and James puts his head down and probably still get what he wants, so that’s how you end up doing what the Raptors did with consistent switches that put CJ Miles as the only thing standing behind LeBron James and the basket.
The Celtics do have some similarities to the Raptors in the way they switch, and through the first two rounds have been able to do it a lot without facing too many mismatch issues. Against the Cavaliers, switching should not be the default, especially unforced switches like this:
So what should we do?
Everything the Cavaliers do offensively is meant to create mismatches and overreactions. In the last series, the Cavaliers played super small, going with George Hill, Kyle Korver, JR Smith, LeBron James, and Kevin Love. Hill and Korver are the primary screeners, James and Love carry the offense, and Smith is a microwave shooter that has a reputation that you have to respect. One potential way the Celtics could attack them defensively is to use the Cavaliers strength of trying to exploit mismatches by putting Aron Baynes on JR Smith. Smith isn’t someone they want creating offense or running the offense through, neither is he someone who’s always going to make the right play if it doesn’t involve a quick catch and shoot.
The Raptors had the right idea of attempting to play big and not getting caught up in playing CLE smal -ball. Boston could take it a step further by baiting CLE into matchups using their bigs and force the Cavaliers into trying to attack low-quality mismatches. If done right, they could push the Cavaliers to go to some of their bigger lineups which packs the paint and takes shooters off the floor.