In the opening two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics let LeBron James be LeBron James. In Game 2, he turned in a 42-point triple double in a 13-point loss as the Celtics wrangled the rest of the Cavs’ body while the head of the snake ate.
In Game 3, LeBron and the Cavaliers were much more deliberate in getting the rest of the team involved. So many times last night, the Celtics would fail to commit on switches or over commit on ball handlers, particularly in their pick-and-roll coverage against LeBron. Point LeBron finished the night with 12 assists in just over 37 minutes. He’s averaging nearly double-digit dimes in the playoffs, but Game 3 was different.
Instead of counting on LeBron to overpower a mismatch and just kicking it out to a shooter after collapsing the defense, they put him in more decision-making chances so that the Celtics had to pick their poison instantaneously. Before, Boston was content letting LeBron try to single-handedly beat them in ISO’s and clear outs. In Game 3, Cleveland forced them to make split second decisions and capitalized on their mental mistakes.
This was LeBron’s first assist of the game and indicative of Boston’s defensive game plan so far against LeBron: don’t overreact to the mismatch by doubling on the catch but have help ready. Jaylen Brown shades over to the low strong side block and it’s Marcus Morris’ responsibility to cover George Hill in the corner. He’s late and LeBron makes him pay.
Hill making that corner three was a bad sign. And it got worse.
Cleveland countered the Celtics lay-in-wait defensive scheme by giving him more playmaking opportunities with more quick hitting actions: PnR’s, off ball flare screens, etc.
With all the attention on James (Brown again watching the ball), Tristan Thompson sets a simple back screen to free up the wide open Korver.
In the regular season, the Cavaliers were 30-5 in games where they hit 13 or more three-pointers; on Saturday night, they hit 17, their fifth highest total all year and highest in the playoffs. Time and time again, LeBron would simply just hit shooters coming off of pin down screens or just simply catching defenders awaiting his next move.
They also put LeBron in 4-5 pick-and-rolls. During the regular season, Boston would usually ICE PnR’s, but with all the attention on LeBron, there was nobody to cover the straight line rolls. It’s a tough decision for the Celtics. If they give him a pocket to shoot the 15-footer, he could just use that space to get a running start at a drive.
Expect more of this from the Cavaliers going forward. Love said that “LeBron’s the best in the game at facillitating.” For the Celtics, this is a scary proposition. It opens up a playbook that had been slowly shrinking and more so, it takes away an edge from Boston.
Psychologically, one of the keys to their success in the first two games was that they could count on LeBron’s hubris to rope-a-dope him into thinking that he could beat them alone. After sweeping the #1 seeded Toronto Raptors and averaging a cool 34-8-11, they baited him to be a scorer and take 20+ field goal attempts a game. Force a switch onto Terry Rozier? Fine, shoot that fifteen footer, LeBron. Marcus Morris wrote LeBron some blackboard material before the series started, claiming that he could slow him down. Try to beat Mook 1-on-1, King.
Well, that ruse is over. After successfully getting young superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid their comeuppance, the Celtics now face a LeBron James who knows that he can’t do it alone. This has been a Cavaliers roster that’s been dragged through the mud all season and now, he knows that his biggest accomplishment won’t be carrying them to another trip to The Finals, but elevating them in order to get him to his eighth straight.