In the first half of Game 3’s 30-point defeat, Mark Jackson summed up the series perfectly, “so far, the team that has played the hardest has won every single game.” It’s simplistic, and for all the strategic adjustments we talk about, maybe too simplistic, but it’s hard to argue so far. The Celtics have had a particular way they were going to attack the Cavaliers defensively. Play everyone straight up, diminish the value of “the others,” and live with forcing LeBron James into tough looks. In the first two games, they dictated the terms, siphoned out all of James’ help, and comfortably took a 2-0 league. In Game 3, the Cavaliers supplementary pieces hit first with James controlling the tempo and helping them stay hot. So when that first punch came, instead of the Cavaliers only nursing a 4-point lead, it was a 15-plus point lead. The winner so far has been the team that has imposed their will on the game the best. However, with the series now at 2-1 with a pivotal Game 4, the Celtics do have a couple of options to ensure they are the ones who impose their will from the start.
Attack the Mismatches
Throughout the postseason, Boston has been doing a fairly good job of attacking mismatches, but they do have stretches where their attempt at an egalitarian offense dilutes into a late contested attempt. Some of that is just going to happen because of opposing teams having solid defensive possessions. Also, without their two star players, it’s a little more difficult to dictate the offense. With that being said, the Celtics have continuously had success going to Jayson Tatum when defended by JR Smith, Jaylen Brown against Kyle Korver, and Al Horford against Kevin Love in post-up situations.
Just as Boston’s defense has gained a reputation at taking away the thing an opponent is best at, the offense needs to make a better effort at going to the things it’s best at when push comes to shove. To be clear, this isn’t to advocate for the team to go full ISO Houston Rockets, but done selectively, it can put the Cavaliers defense on its heels just as they did with Philadelphia.
Keeping the Focus up on Defense
As we’ve discussed previously, the theme to a lot of the Cavaliers defense is using off-ball action to generate mismatches to exploit. By using their perimeter guys like Kyle Korver, JR Smith, and George Hill as screeners, the Cavaliers open opportunities for James and Love to be defended by small wings or guards. Boston has mostly done a good job avoiding unnecessary “pre-switching” and when they do get caught in a compromising position have been solid in not compounding the error by overhelping. However, as we saw in the 3rd quarter of Game 1, and all of Game 3, the Cavaliers can control the game when they dictate the matchups and force the C’s out of the position. Game 3 highlighted the dangers of overplaying mismatches against James as he was able to use the extra attention on him to get his supplementary pieces open looks.
Once other guys get going, and James finds a groove, the Celtics defense goes from being the aggressors to becoming reactionary, which allowed the Cavaliers (read: LeBron James) to carve them up. For the Celtics to have any chance of pushing the Cavaliers to the brink of elimination, they must get back to their principled attack on the Cavaliers offense and take control of the game from the start.
Each team has now had their moments watching their formula come to fruition. The fact that every game has been decided by double-digits indicates that the winner has been determined by the team who dictates the game. If Boston wants a real shot at going to The Finals and dethroning the King, they’ll need to get back to turning him into a one-man show while overwhelming him with their balanced attack. Any attempts at shortcuts will have the series back in Boston tied 2-2.