The Boston Celtics are a game away from The Finals with a chance to close out the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight. Winning in Cleveland has been something that the Celtics haven’t been able to do all year. By now, I’m sure you’re well-versed about the Celtics road struggles and have heard all parallels to the 2008 teams, so we won’t linger too much on it.
What is important is figuring out how the Celtics can steal one in Cleveland. In the last road match up, the team came out overeager to prove the road woes were overblown and promptly dug themselves a hole that they could never climb out of. The big adjustment in Game 5 was subbing Aron Baynes into the starting lineup for Marcus Morris so that he could take the pressure off Al Horford by defending Tristan Thompson, clog up the paint, and even out the rebounding battle.
The team also employed a selective switching technique to limit the number of possessions Terry Rozier spent on LeBron James. Both counters worked to perfection and held the Cavaliers to a series low 83 points with only 16% of their looks classified as uncontested. It was a defining performance that highlighted the Celtics identity as an elite defensive team that has the ability to give any offense fits. With that in mind, the last adjustment the Celtics should make lies within their rotation.
It’s time to start Marcus Smart
It has been the logical choice for awhile, but the team plays him starter minutes anyway and because Rozier has been consistent for most of these playoffs, it never really made sense make such a switch. However, in this series, Rozier has averaged 12.6 ppg on 36.8% shooting from the field and a putrid 22.2% from three on 6.2 attempts. Rozier has had trouble scoring at all three-levels consistently, and his inability to be a useful spacer limits his overall impact as a player. Within this series, the team that has gotten off to the quick start in the first quarter has won every single game. This is where the insertion of Marcus Smart comes in.
Though the Celtics switching strategy of having Rozier run off James while he has his back turned worked in Boston, It’s a delicate balance that can be schemed around easily once a team knows it’s coming. Once a team knows a switch is coming, they can make the pass as soon as the switch happens and have “switcher” (Rozier) scrambling across the court to contest a shot.
This is a perfect defense against 29 teams in the league, but LeBron James is the one player who can zip passes like this across the court once he knows how the Celtics are going to play him.
With the Cavaliers ability to hit shots at home, things could quickly spiral into a big Cavaliers run once they get a hang of the read. Inserting Smart in these situations doesn’t mean that the Celtics won’t go to some of those Game 5 tricks, but it does mean that they’ll have the ability to keep James guessing since Smart can stay on James, especially with Baynes on the backside to contain the paint.
It’s not so much that Rozier is a lousy defender, but having Smart on the floor instead of him allows the Celtics to open up the full range of options of how to defend the Cavaliers offense. From a numbers perspective, Smart leads the team in deflections and contests nearly double the shots Rozier does (8 to 4.4). He also has the highest net rating in this series (10.2).
On the offensive end, the team is averaging a 110.8 offensive rating when he’s on the court versus a 100.2 offensive rating when Rozier is on the court. Smart is only behind James in this series in assist percentage (33.7) and leads the series in assist ratio which measures the percentage of a team’s possessions that have an assist when that player is on the court. I’m harping on this because early execution will be imperative to win on the road and Smart is by far the teams best game manager. Having him on the court has become even more critical with the way the Cavaliers have used Thompson to limit Horford’s ability to be the team’s offensive hub. The team needs someone early on who can make the Cavaliers pay for their defensive mistakes and find some easy offense for the players around him.
What about Scary Terry?
Rozier is still going to play a big part, and I think it could benefit him to come in against the second unit. It’s worth mentioning that though Rozier has struggled overall in this series, he’s been a little bit better on the road where he has been averaging 14.5 ppg, 6.5 apg, and 4.5 rpg while shooting 40.7 FG% and 30.8 3p% on 6.5 attempts. It’s possible that against 2nd units, Rozier may be able to find his rhythm and get back to putting up points in bunches. Moreover, because Stevens seems to have cut his rotation to about 7-8 players, minutes won’t be a problem for Rozier. He’ll still be able to maintain his 34.3 mpg, but they’ll just come at a different time.
Truthfully, it wouldn’t surprise me if Stevens didn’t make this move because he usually waits for a team to make him adjust before he does and the Cavaliers have yet to prove they solved the Celtics’ defensive puzzle.
So why did I just lay out this argument? In Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks, Stevens threw the Bucks a curveball by starting Semi Ojeleye and playing him exclusively down the stretch over Jayson Tatum. When asked about why the reserve got so many minutes, Stevens said that he fit the identity of how the Celtics wanted to play at the time. Marcus Smart is the identity that the Celtics need to take if they’re going to dethrone The King. He gives them the most options to throw at the Cavaliers’ offense and is strong ball handler who can run a crisp offense. Putting him in the starting lineup is the Celtics best chance at survival, for this round and beyond.