During his radio hit with 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand, Brad Stevens hinted that the Celtics could make a change to the starting lineup if the Cavaliers stick to Tristan Thompson over Kyle Korver. His thinking:
“The part that is hard about them going big is two-fold. 1) The rebounding becomes unbelievable when you insert Thompson because Thompson is a tremendous offensive rebounder as is Love. So now you’ve got the 4 and the 5 on the court that are just tremendous rebounders and then 2) you shift LeBron to the 3 which is a size issue obviously for most 3’s in the league.”
The numbers are startling so far. In a game the Celtics won going away, the starting unit had a NetRtg of -50.1 (and for what it’s worth, they’re -5.7 over the first two game). Much of that fallout is from LeBron James going nuclear in the first quarter, but it wasn’t until Aron Baynes replaced Jayson Tatum early in the second half did Boston start chipping away at Cleveland’s lead. The Celtics would go on to outscore the Cavs 36 to 22 in the third, on their way to taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. The changed worked.
With Baynes manning the middle, the teams match up more traditionally with some interesting switches. First, the biggest reason that Tristan Thompson is in the game is to match up with Al Horford so even with Baynes in the line up, the centers don’t defend each other. Thompson covered Horford for 60% of Al’s offensive possessions and for the most part, held him in check. That put Kevin Love on Aron Baynes.
You would think that adding more beef into the playoff stew would turn it into a more physical affair, but It’s not as if Boston outbullied Cleveland after they went big. It was an offensive burst from the smallest player on the floor, Terry Rozier, that actually propelled the Celtics to yet another impressive comeback. However, there are some quirks and intricacies that Stevens was able to exploit.
Thompson has a solid history of clamping down Horford because of his solid frame in the paint and his athleticism to stay with him on the perimeter. It’s that penchant to be Horford’s shadow that Boston often took advantage of.
Even in a pick-and-roll, Thompson plays tight on Horford and that gives Rozier plenty of space to drive the lane for an easy lay up. Dead eye three-pointer Baynes is in the corner with Love pulled out to space the floor.
In transition, it’s not Horford that keeps Thompson in the paint; it’s his natural instinct. As a front court player, he naturally drifts into the key to protect the rim. That opens up Marcus Morris (or Horford) for an open 3 on the secondary break.
Here’s another fast break where Thompson is so concerned with Horford that he doesn’t drop down to protect the rim from Jaylen Brown’s lay up.
Defensively, Tatum is a solid defender, but Tyron Lue has decided to target him in mismatches. In Game 2, Tatum primarily covered shooters like JR Smith and Jeff Green, but when he got switched on to LeBron or Love, they tried to outmuscle the rookie in the paint. On six possessions, Cleveland’s All-Stars were a combined 3-for-4 on Tatum.
With Baynes in the game, the dynamic changes. Baynes tags in to body up Thompson and Horford moves down a weight class to check Love instead of Tatum; Baynes can wrestle Thompson on the blocks and fight him for rebounds while the more mobile Horford can switch pick-and-pops and get out to shooters on the perimeter.
In those clips above, Rozier and Brown were credited for the defensive boards, but it was Baynes blocking out Thompson that got it all started. On all three possessions, the Celtics scored in transition, emphasizing the point that to turn defense into offense, you have to grab the rebound to complete the defensive possession.
As series progress, each successive game gets more physical and nasty. That is particularly true against the Cavs because of Boston’s ability to cover the perimeter and limit three-point shooting. The question is whether Stevens believes that the Celtics can out small ball Cleveland without playing a traditional center or does Boston have to match the Cavs pound-for-pound in this cage match.