On the eve of Game 5, Al Horford was named to the 2nd All-Defensive Team. In typical all-for-one and Al-for-all, he deflected the attention and instead Horford shifted the praise to his teammates, Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes, stating that they deserved to be recognized for their defensive contributions on the best defensive team in the NBA. Brad Stevens echoed those sentiments. Hours later, it was that of Smart and Baynes that would help contain LeBron James and give the Celtics a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With the rise of the Golden State Warriors, this has been the dawn of positionless basketball. Most teams have adopted the small ball style, including the Celtics, but in these playoffs and particularly in both conference finals, we’ve seen this age of hoops enlightenment stamped out by good old fashioned ISO ball. The beautiful ball movement has died and this industrial revolution of ground-and-pound has taken over. Whether it’s Kevin Durant vs. everybody or LeBron James posting up Terry Rozier, teams are hunting for mismatches and trying to exploit them.
In both games in Cleveland, much of Boston’s frustration stemmed from LeBron abusing small defenders like Rozier and Smart. Over Games 3 and 4, he was 9-for-12 vs. the Celtics’ point guards. To combat the size differential, Brad Stevens opted to start Aron Baynes for noted LeBron
stopper slow downer, Marcus Morris.
It was a curious move, especially this late in the series. Even though the Rozier-Brown-Tatum-Morris-Horford starting 5 has been a net negative for these ECF (-9 over 55 minutes), it’s the switchiest of lineups and the one least likely to generate a mismatch for James to attack. After the game, Horford said:
“I felt like it was great for us defensively,” Al Horford said of Boston’s return to its roots. “They made adjustments after Game 1. We kind of stuck around with the same lineup. But I think just by doing that, it was a change that worked in our favor.”
Even with Baynes as the back stop of the Celtics’ defense, the Cavaliers still forced some 1-3 switches so that James could attack Rozier. This time, Boston was ready.
On the first play of the game, as soon as James got Rozier in the post, Baynes shaded off of Tristan Thompson to replace Rozier. Kevin Love eventually gets the floater after attacking a Horford close out, but the strategy was clear from the tip: if LeBron was in a position to back a smaller player down, the Celtics would switch in order to prevent James from backing down and power driving.
It’s important to note that they didn’t have the same approach with Love. If Love got deep in the post against a smaller defender, the Celtics would live with Love’s baby hooks.
The Celtics also didn’t switch if LeBron opted to face up rather than post. That’s an important distinction. With James facing the basket, he can survey the entire court and spot shooters. It seemed like Boston was willing to let LeBron beat them off the dribble against a quicker albeit smaller defender.
Even against Rozier, the Celtics stayed home on LeBron and then would help late if he got in the restricted area.
But here’s where it gets fun. With Baynes starting, the Celtics didn’t have a big in the second unit. Stevens shortened his rotation by only playing Smart and Morris off the bench and instead of sliding Horford down to play some 5, it was the undersized Smart that covered Thompson and later the high-flying Larry Nance Jr.
Smart, however, didn’t switch like Baynes would. Instead, Smart played more center field and middle linebacker and it was his decision to gamble on blitzes.
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but I think the randomness of Smart’s game and using the Smart’s twitchiness vs. his switchiness was an unexpected wrinkle. In the end, the Celtics got what they wanted: 1) despite not starting, Morris covered LeBron for 45 possessions (60.5% of Cleveland’s offense), 2) Rozier and Smart six times combined for zero points, and 3) Love-Smith-Korver were held to 4-for-16 from behind the arc (after shooting 14-for-27 at the Q). Unfortunately, there were some issues. In the second half, James would pull out of PnR’s with Thompson, face up, and go one-on-one with Baynes instead with great success. That’s just another mismatch that Stevens will have to address in Cleveland for Game 4.
Of course, in this season of switching, Tyronn Lue could switch his starting lineup again for Game 6. In a moment of clarity and/or hilarity, Lue admitted that he was “thrown for a loop” when Semi Ojeleye didn’t play which prevented first quarter minutes for Kyle Korver. Maybe Lue goes small again and starts Korver in Cleveland to force Stevens’ hand. It’s a game of adjustments and tweaks, but for one night, Stevens and the Celtics solved the LeBron riddle.