Weaknesses are nearly impossible to hide in the playoffs. Whether it’s the limitations of a player or the soft spots of a team, deficiencies are magnified over the course of a seven-game series.
Which is why as simplistic as it sounds, one of the main reasons the Eastern Conference Finals have a different complexion now than they did before reaching Cleveland is a single mismatch the Cavaliers have exploited over and over again.
The Boston Celtics defence has been great all season and in the playoffs, they’ve ratcheted up the pressure significantly at times. But Cleveland have found one method of attack that has given the Celtics problems.
Seemingly whenever Terry Rozier has been on the floor with LeBron James, the Cavaliers have run a pick-and-roll to get Boston’s guard matched up with James. Hardly anyone can match James’ strength and skill in the post, so it’s no surprise the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rozier has struggled to hold up in those situations.
James has either calmly backed Rozier down and gotten easy baskets, or waited for Boston’s help defenders to lean his way just enough to where he can find teammates for open 3s.
I like LeBron using a live dribble to get the Rozier switch much better than CLE using him as the screener, where Boston gets a chance to execute that scram because someone has to lob the ball in to him #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/tv2YHzYGgL pic.twitter.com/vYcRLQX7LF— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 22, 2018
Rozier only registered as the direct defender on James for six possessions in Game 4, but on those James was a perfect 3-of-3 and drew a shooting foul for seven points. In Game 3, James hit his only shot on Rozier and drew two free throws in five possessions.
Those stats don’t jump off the page and scream concern for Boston, but watching the games you can tell how much those situations scramble the Celtics defence.
The odd thing is, this isn’t something that started happening when the series shifted to Cleveland. The Cavaliers were going after Rozier in the first two games in Boston, it’s just that the Celtics managed to counteract them with the ‘scram switch’, which basically involves a weakside defender pulling the overmatched defender off the ball and taking the assignment, usually before the ball arrives.
Boston have added their own spin on it by waiting until the entry pass is in the air before committing to the switch, which allows a bigger body like Al Horford to corral James in the post.
Fantastic effort by Terry Rozier to get back into this play. Celts executed that scram switch, he had to sprint all the way out to Love in the opposite corner #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/tv2YHzYGgL pic.twitter.com/6EsiBXYtk6— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 22, 2018
That strategy worked well in the first two contests, but for whatever reason, the Celtics didn’t use it as frequently, or execute it as soundly, in Cleveland. That’s how Rozier was left on an island so often against James or Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson in Game 3 and 4, resulting in good looks for the Cavaliers offence.
One part of the solution for Boston is to simply communicate and rotate quicker. After getting burned repeatedly by mismatches on Rozier in the first half of Game 4, the Celtics adjusted at the intermission and looked more like the defence from the first two games in the third and fourth quarters – and it’s not a coincidence Cleveland scored 43 points in the second half.
In fact, the first two instances of the second half when Rozier was caught on a mismatch, Boston’s scram switch forced the Cavaliers into turnovers each time.
The Celtics are more than capable of getting out of those situations, but they can also help themselves by staying out of them in the first place.
Too many times in Cleveland, Boston was content to switch everything just for the sake of switching. Even when George Hill or J.R. Smith would run a pick-and-roll with James well beyond the arc, the Celtics defence would relent and give it to what the Cavaliers wanted by switching, instead of daring Hill or Smith to beat them off the dribble by going under the screen.
But Boston has a tougher set. Here there’s no real reason to switch, Hill’s not enough of a threat, and they’re not really engaging. You could have not switched this, and kept Rozier off of Love. That threat is why the help comes, that opens the corner. pic.twitter.com/hce7nUEAUp— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 22, 2018
You can chalk that up to a few things: poor coaching – yes, even for the great Brad Stevens – youth, and lack of communication and trust.
Boston have been a different team on the road than at home in the playoffs for a reason. They’re young and susceptible to mental lapses and loss of composure.
If they can refocus on the defensive blueprint that allowed them to take a 2-0 lead in the series, they can win this game within the game – and as a result, this series.
Here are takeaways from Game 4.
Boston can’t get over the hump
As bad as they played and as many opportunities as they missed, the Celtics closed the deficit to a few possessions multiple times. They just couldn’t get any closer and they’ll look back in frustration at the moments where they could have capitalised. Boston missed a total of 15 dunks and layups in the loss, with those misses turning into 15 points for Cleveland, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Just a rough night.
Celtics missed 15 dunks/layups during Game 4.— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 22, 2018
Maybe more painful: The Cavaliers turned those misses into 15 points (4-of-8 shooting, 7 free throws), per @ESPNStatsInfo
Jaylen Brown: "Just going too fast, too excited. Just need to slow down."
Korver comes through on defence
Kyle Korver is considered a one-way player, but he’s actually not as bad of a defender as his reputation would suggest. The sharpshooters showed off his defensive ability in Game 4 when he did well to limit Jaylen Brown and finished with three impressive blocks. Brown got it going in the second half, but by then, Cleveland had built up enough of a lead to where it didn’t end up mattering. Boston should keep attacking Korver, but it won’t always result in a bucket.
This is crazy Kyle Korver really got Jaylen Brown out here looking like Papa Doc after Eminem exposes Cranbrook pic.twitter.com/NN7LvJOJn3— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) May 22, 2018
Cavs relentless picking on Rozier
It’s not a secret how the Cavaliers want to attack Boston’s defence. Terry Rozier may be a good perimeter defender, but he can’t hang in the post against LeBron James or Kevin Love, which is why Cleveland are going after him again and again after drawing a switch. Boston simply haven’t executed well in sending help from the weakside to get Rozier out of those situations and when he’s been stuck on an island, the Cavaliers have seemingly got whatever they’ve wanted.
Thompson makes life hard
He’s not scoring or filling up the stat sheet much, but Tristan Thompson has undoubtedly been one of the most important players in the series. His defence has really given the Celtics trouble and presented a mirage on mismatches, baiting players to attack him only to end up with a poor shot. When Thompson was the primary defender in Game 4, Boston players shot just 3-of-11 from the field.
Whistles throw off rhythm
The flow of Game 4 was just… off. A total of 49 fouls where whistled, which ended up hurting both sides and putting several players in foul trouble. There’s a difference between calling the game in a manner that prevents the play from getting overly-physical and calling touch fouls. Too often, the refs in Game 4 were doing the latter, which is particularly frustrating to watch and for players to play through in a hyper-competitive playoff setting.
Give LeBron James enough time and he’ll usually figure things out.
It won’t go down as one of the most memorable playoff performances of his storied career, but James delivered a methodical 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting and – outside of his seven turnovers – looked in complete control.
From attacking off the dribble to feasting in the post, James was aggressive in going to the rim against mismatches. He finished with 13 baskets in the paint, the second-most of his playoff career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
“The thing about it is that you just have to battle. You just have to make it as hard as possible, because he’s going to find a matchup that he ultimately wants.”
James also set another noteworthy record in the win, hitting a 22-foot jumper midway through the second quarter to give him his 2,357th playoff basket, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most in postseason history.
James already ranked first all-time in playoff points (6,668), playoff minutes (9,736) and playoff steals (410).
“To know where I come from, small city 35 miles south of here, and to hear I’m in the same category or talked about and jumping these greats in the playoffs, it’s pretty cool,” James said.
“You hear the scoring, the field goals made, and for a kid that really doesn’t care much about scoring.”
The series now heads back to Boston, where the Celtics have been a different team than on the road in the playoffs.
Through nine games at TD Garden, they’ve yet to drop a game and have outscored opponents by an average margin of 11.3 points. On the road, they’re just 1-6 and been outscored by 12.0 points per game.
111-102, Final in Game 4.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) May 22, 2018
Celtics have still not won a road game in regulation since March 28th.
Headed home for Game 5... pic.twitter.com/8gLNqiDEt6
After Boston and Cleveland both held serve at home, the Celtics still hold an advantage with two of remaining three games hosted in their building.
But with James in a groove and the rest of the Cavaliers following his lead, Game 5 on Wednesday (UAE: 04:30 +1) will be a challenge for a young Boston side eager to respond.
“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals. Doesn’t get better than that,” Stevens said. “Ultimately, anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough, I mean, everything is tough.
“In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”