By James Herbert
Cleveland, OH (CBS Sports) — The Boston Celtics don’t quite look like the Boston Celtics anymore. At their best this season, they were known for not merely their tough defense — they were first in the league in net rating — but for their offensive system, predicated on ball movement, player movement, screening and cutting.
In the playoffs, though, pretty sets tend to get disrupted by defenses that know what’s coming. Passing lanes close when opponents ignore poor shooters and cheat off decent ones who don’t possess a lightning-quick release. Great shooters struggle to get free when defenders are allowed to grab, hold and bump them away from the ball.
Watching the Celtics’ offense against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals has not always been pretty, especially in their two losses at Quicken Loans Arena. In a Monday, guard Terry Rozier and swingman Jaylen Brown settled for misguided shots early in the shot clock, Marcus Morris got too ambitious in one-on-one situations and Marcus Smart threw the ball away multiple times. Boston was able to cut Cleveland’s 19-point lead down to eight, but never played with enough flow or precision to get closer than that.
This is where it is worth noting the Celtics didn’t exactly play beautiful basketball in their 4-1 series victory against the Philadelphia 76ers, either. The Sixers are an aggressive and intelligent defensive team, but Boston bullied them by relentlessly attacking J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. Brown, Jayson Tatum and Smart did great work on the block, and Al Horford made Philadelphia — in particular, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joel Embiid — uncomfortable by being a threat on the perimeter. Against the Cavs, the Celtics have again found themselves playing the matchup game, but have been less successful. An enormous part of that is that they are facing LeBron James.
“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said.
James was outrageously good in Game 4, scoring 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting while displaying the same kind of defensive energy that changed the feel of the series two days earlier. In Brown, Morris and Semi Ojeleye, the Celtics have three defenders who can generally stay with James and avoid being embarrassed one-on-one. James has made that seem like this hardly matters by patiently seeking out switches and getting wherever he needs to go. You don’t have to be a coach or a scout to understand that when the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rozier winds up guarding James one-on-one, it is a problem.
“I think this league is all predicated on trying to find mismatches,” James said. “That’s every team. If you look at the four teams in the postseason now, Houston is trying to find mismatches, Golden State is trying to find mismatches, Boston, and us as well. We’re all trying to find mismatches for us to try to be successful offensively. It’s not much of a secret.”
James knows when the Celtics are trying to target his teammates, and he has been extremely sharp when it comes to help defense. Just like he did after Game 3, he referred to the Cavs “flying around” on that end of the court. When he is doing that with full intensity, getting in passing lanes and rotating to close out on shooters, it can be downright intimidating.
“When he’s coming out, not just offensively firing but defensively taking the challenge and making it tough for Brown, we all feed off his energy,” Cavs big man Tristan Thompson said. “When your captain is doing it on both ends, and on the offensive end he’s doing his thing and defensively he’s taking the challenge and multiple efforts and giving it his all, we’ve got to look at ourselves and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to follow behind.’ There’s no excuse for us.”
I’ll be honest: An offense entirely based on mismatch-hunting is not my favorite thing to watch. If coaches like Stevens, Mike D’Antoni and even Steve Kerr are all doing it, though, that should tell you something: The best teams in the league have gotten so good at switching and are being so physical with cutters that finding a mismatch is often the best way to create an advantage.
In this series, Rozier’s case is fascinating. For a point guard, he is in no way a bad defender. Not only is he long, quick and feisty, he is absolutely fearless. The problem is that he is not equipped to guard powerful front-court players, and the Celtics have asked him to do so on switches.
When Rozier is matched up with a bigger defender, Rozier’s instinct is to get as close as possible without fouling and be a pest. He tries, he really does. But there is only so much he can do against James or Kevin Love.
“Rozier is a tough fighter, tough competitor,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “But if you try to get switches, I guess he’s the one you want to try to go up with Kevin and Bron because the other four guys are the same size. They’re strong. They’re physical. So the way they play, you’ve got to try to take advantage of the mismatch because they don’t have a lot [of small players] on the floor at the same time.”
Have we reached a point in the NBA‘s evolution where everybody has to be able to guard everybody? I would not argue that every player shorter than 6-foot-5 and taller than 6-foot-11 is suddenly unplayable, but as we get deeper into the playoffs, the value of versatility is undeniable.
Stevens, though, insisted that the best big-picture move might be living with some of these mismatches because the alternative is even less appealing. James is a master at understanding where help defense is coming from and creating open shots for Cleveland’s shooters. Boston has not tried to hide the fact that it is trying to stop his supporting cast from going off.
“Well, [James] is going to go after whoever he wants to go after,” Stevens said. “But at the end of the day, we’ve gone through it a lot. I think one of the things that sometimes we all get consumed with is the points he scores on that switch. If it’s eight but it keeps you from rotating and you can still guard the three-point line, then sometimes you just have to pick your poison.”
In this context, Rozier needs to give the Celtics more on the offensive end. In order to justify all the possessions where the Cavs are going after him, he has to be able to get into the paint, put pressure on the defense and create open looks for himself and his teammates. It Kyrie Irving now, and that hasn’t been the case for most of the playoffs. At this level of competition, every team needs players who can score or demand a double team even when going up against elite defense.Boston misses
Perhaps the biggest compliment Thompson could pay the Celtics was suggesting that Cleveland’s “real test” will come in Game 5 on Wednesday. Thompson said he notices Stevens on the sideline telling his team to push as fast as possible off makes and misses and get the ball hopping around. In the first two games at TD Garden, the Cavs didn’t communicate or, frankly, try hard enough on defense to force Boston into stagnation.
As otherworldly as LeBron was with the ball in his hands and as accurately as Cleveland collectively shot from deep at home, its chances of taking control of this series largely rest on how well it can muck things up, stop the Celtics from running and dictate the terms of engagement. In this respect, the Cavs formula the rest of the way should be simple: if you win the matchup game within the game, you win the game.