Brad Stevens: We’re gonna have to play better on Tuesday... pic.twitter.com/R4zHOy11RM— Dime on UPROXX (@DimeUPROXX) May 13, 2018
It was a throw away line at the end of a Brad Stevens’ 30-second soliloquy about Boston’s offensive principles, but it caught the media’s attention. After a 25-point blowout where the Celtics played arguably their best first half of basketball in the regular or post season, Stevens said that they’d “have to play better on Tuesday.”
It’s part coach speak, part midwestern modesty from Stevens, but it’s all been the backbone of what’s made this Celtics team and the ones that came before it always competitive and a tough out, particularly on defense. When asked about Stevens critique, Terry Rozier chuckled at the prospect of his coach thinking they could play “a lot better” after an absolute throttling of the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs.
But Game 1 is just one game. No doubt Tuesday will feature a more motivated LeBron James and a more physical Cavaliers team. They won’t go 4-for-26 from behind the arc again. They could go bigger with Tristan Thompson in the starting lineup to combat Boston’s 48-40 rebounding edge in the series opener. The NBA playoffs are series of adjustments and while Boston’s opening salvo was impressive, there are areas that could be cleaned and tightened up.
The Cavaliers’ shot chart from Sunday’s Mother’s Day Massacre looked like the buck shot of a double barrel, a scattering of indiscriminate mid-range jumpers and desperate long-2’s. If it’s already not hung up at the Louvre, Stevens is getting it framed for his mantle at home. The Celtics’ frantic switching on defense kept everything, including LeBron, in front of them and forced the Cavs to twenty-four field goal attempts between the paint and the three-point line.
To beat the Cavs in the playoffs is to shut down their three point shooting. In their three losses to the Pacers, Indiana was able to hold Cleveland to under 30% 3FG%; the Raptors were swept on the strength of 41.1% from behind the arc (Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith combined for 24-for-38).
For some regular season context, Cleveland shot 12.1 3FGA’s that were considered “open,” 15.1 that were considered “wide open” and 4.6 that were considered “tight” or “very tight.” Per Second Spectrum, the Cavaliers were 2-for-8 on open threes and 2-for-18 on contested threes in Game 1. That’s stingy defense, but the Celtics could tighten the screws even more.
One way Ty Lue tried to get LeBron in advantageous mismatches was a 1-4 screen that put Terry Rozier on an island with James.
Al Horford's command of the defensive scheme on this play epitomized how Boston dominated early. With TT on the floor, Celtics went into a switching scheme where Cleveland wanted to get Rozier on LeBron. Horford would sag off TT waiting to switch Rozier off & smother Lebron. pic.twitter.com/1ztLL9kVgA— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 14, 2018
As former CelticsBlogger Jared Weiss points out, the Celtics were ready for it and in the play above, couldn’t have defended it better. Boston will allow Cleveland to settle for post ups and fade aways, but they’ll keep a help defender close by just in case LeBron can turn the corner. And as another former CelticsBlogger, Kevin O’Connor points out, if they can make the switch before LeBron attempts a shot, even better.
However, that leaves the weak side vulnerable and there were a few times that Boston allowed some clean looks.
With the shot clock running down, Marcus Morris decides to double team from behind LeBron’s right shoulder (with Rozier covering the paint drive). Jaylen Brown covers George Hill on the baseline and LeBron is strong enough to make the water polo pass to either Korver or Smith. Jayson Tatum does a decent job recovering onto Korver’s 3, but this is something that the Celtics need to be ultra aware of moving forward in the series.
Here it is again. Instead of the down man (Brown) helping out on LeBron, it’s Horford coming down from the break to double. LeBron recognizes it and whips the ball to Love who swings it to the open Smith. Brown makes the right read and directs Tatum to defend the baseline, but doesn’t recover quick enough to the perimeter. He’s a dead man defending a 41.5% and 37.5% three point shooter alone behind the arc.
Horford made a similar decision in the third quarter. As soon as Love started backing done Rozier, Horford doubled off of George Hill (35.1% from 3) to help. Maybe the Celtics are willing to give up a top-of-the-arc triple from the starting lineup’s worst shooter, but it’s interesting how Boston has approached LeBron and Love in the time of the conference finals.
Against Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons, they were more than willing to run single coverage on those players even if there was a sizable advantage. It could be just a matter of throwing different looks at Cleveland to keep them honest or making a calculated risk that as well as they defended the arc on Sunday afternoon, the Cavs’ psyche was already damaged and an open 3 would feel like a contested 3 anyway. The NBA world awaits an eruption from Mount LeBron in Game 2, but it could be Cleveland’s impending onslaught from 3 that could immediately change the complexion of the series.