Defending LeBron James often feels like an exercise in futility. Put a big player on him, he backs the ball out, literally licks his lips, and then takes a couple of high dribbles and proceeds to blow by the big for a layup. Put a smaller, quicker player on James and he goes right to post, where he scores himself or forces the double and finds an open teammate. This is why the approach for the better part of a decade and a half has been “Let LeBron get his, but don’t let anyone else beat you.”
The 2018 Boston Celtics are a little different though. They regularly feature two to three players that are similar in size to James and bigs who can actually move their feet enough to stay with him when he backs out. And Boston also has Marcus Smart who has kind of created the role of “power guard” on defense. He gives up height to James, but has more than enough bulk and strength to avoid being overpowered on the block.
All that said, the Cleveland Cavaliers still managed to find the weak link in many Boston lineups: going right at Terry Rozier with James. Boston tried switching Rozier on to different players to start possessions, but the Cavs still managed to get the matchup they wanted over and over again. Rozier competes hard and does his best, but he just doesn’t have the strength to keep James from getting wherever he wants to go. The easy suggestion is to double, but doubling the best passer in the game is a dangerous proposition. Instead of doubling, the Celtics have gone to the “scram” defense:
Rozier and Jaylen Brown switch, as Boston always does. Instead of living with it, Aron Baynes immediately comes over on the catch, while Rozier scrambles (this is where “scram” comes from) away to the other side. But watch what Rozier does as he runs away: he tags Tristan Thompson as he cuts to the basket. This takes away the initial, in the paint option. James kicks all the way across the court to Kevin Love, who is run off a three by Al Horford. Love scores, but the Celtics will live with Love shooting floaters on the move all day long.
Second result of the scram defense is another Cavs score, but a shot Boston will happily surrender:
Same start to the play with the switch and then the scram. Rozier looks to tag Thompson, but that cut isn’t there, so he gets right to J.R. Smith in the opposite corner. Love hits a three, but it’s contested and from 32 feet. The Celtics will take that one over James in the post any time.
What about when the Cavaliers don’t run pick and roll?
This is just good, old-fashioned man-to-man, no-help defense. Marcus Morris might not be the “LeBron Stopper” that some make him out to be, but he can hold his own better than most. He moves his feet, forces James to the baseline and helps force a turnover. Look back at why the Cavs don’t run a screen game though. Notice anything? No Rozier to pick on and Boston pre-switched Jayson Tatum onto George Hill. Even if the Cavs run a James/Hill action, Boston has the size they want on James on the switch.
This one shows the impact of size and effort:
Because the Celtics put Baynes in the starting five in pace of Morris, that meant Jaylen Brown had to start as the primary defender on James. After a rough close to the first half, the last thing Boston wanted was for Cleveland to get rolling to open the second half. James goes right to the block, but watch what Brown does. As Smith catches the pass on the wing, Brown pushes James off the block. James ends up catching at about 20 feet. From this spot, he’s either squaring up for a long two, setting up for a drive against a set Celtics defense, or passing the ball. The latter happens and Smith misses, as he’s done for the entire series in Boston. Brown putting in the effort to push James out of the post on the catch makes everything easier on the Celtics defense as a whole.
The tried and true method to beating a James’ led team is still to hold everyone else in check. But that doesn’t mean you need to make it easy on James either. The Celtics don’t have one defender they can put on James to take him out of the game. No team in the NBA possesses that player, because no such defender exists. But by throwing all sorts of different looks at James and playing with maximum effort, Boston can even the playing field as much as possible.