LeBron James presents a tremendous challenge for the Celtics’ defense in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals. While Brad Stevens has plenty of versatile wings to throw at James, he will be as tough to contain as he usually is. That’s where most of the attention will lie in this series, but Boston has a number of different match ups to exploit against a weak Cleveland defense, too.
The Cavs allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, good for 29th in the NBA. Their defense has improved in the postseason, but they still have given up 108.4 points per 100 possessions in 11 playoff games. LeBron spearheads an offensive juggernaut but his team’s shortcomings on the defensive end leave them vulnerable against a well-coached Celtics team.
Boston has gone through their fair share of offensive droughts over the course of the first two rounds. This can happen when you’re without your two best offensive players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. They’ve found success in their motion offense, playing through Al Horford as well as drive and kicks from Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier. When the other team thwarts those foundational concepts that Stevens runs, they start to go after mismatches.
In the conference semifinals against Philadelphia, a strong defensive team, Stevens relentlessly went after Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick in the post. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown were deployed to chase Redick and Belinelli around screens, and the Celtics utilized their strength in the post against the traditionally sized two-guards.
With the floor spread, Smart and Brown can back down smaller guards and either score through light resistance or find the open man if someone comes over on help defense. Stevens utilized this strategy throughout Game 5 as Smart and Brown combined for 38 points in the win.
When Smart and Brown blanket players like Redick and Belinelli and expose their limitations on the defensive end, they make it hard for coaches to consider playing those types of players. Against Cleveland, Brown and Smart will primarily go up against Kyle Korver and JR Smith while George Hill covers Rozier.
Korver is one of the premier three point shooters in the NBA. He is exceptional at coming off of screens and squaring his shoulders into his shots. Cleveland has found a formula of success with Korver and Kevin Love playing off of LeBron James for back-breaking three pointers when James drives. Korver shot 56 percent from three against Toronto in the East Semifinals following a 40 percent clip in the first round.
Smith is a prolific shooter as well. He’s different from Korver in that he can get his own shot and doesn’t seem to have any conscious when hoisting perimeter looks. What he and Korver have in common is their lack of strength as defenders. Smart and Brown can look to punish them down low while containing them on the outside better than anyone in the league, diminishing their impact on the floor.
Smart ranked in the 81st percentile in post up plays last season while Brown ranked in the 77th percentile. Their collective frequency on post ups went down this season, but their strength in that area of the game is still there.
One of Boston’s biggest advantages against the Sixers was their superior athleticism on the wing. Philadelphia’s three point shooting advantage was neutralized by Boston’s ability to prevent clean looks from deep while forcing them into difficult defensive assignments.
LeBron will get his points, that’s a near certainty. Beating a James-led team has always been about limiting his supporting cast with extraordinary effort on LeBron himself. The Celtics are not only the best defense in the NBA, but they are consistently the best at guarding the three point line.
If Boston can limit Cleveland’s shooters (Korver, Smith) while exploiting favorable mismatches in the post, they may have a chance to pull out another upset. As we’ve seen with the Celtics’ back court this year, they have the personnel to prevent the Cavs from hiding people on defense.
Videos from Tomek Kordylewski