After handling the fragile Toronto Raptors with ease in the second round, the Cavaliers are dealing with a different beast in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics are not scared to go toe-to-toe with a team that has ruled the East with an iron fist since LeBron James’ arrival in 2014 – and for good reason.
Cleveland have the best player in the world, let alone in the series, but Boston are stocked with long, athletic, two-way players who have no exploitable weaknesses on either end of the floor.
That balance and versatility was on full display in Game 1, particularly on the defensive end where the Celtics suffocated the Cavaliers’ offensive flow like a boa constrictor attacking its prey.
It all starts with Boston’s ability to shut down off-ball action. Like they did so often to J.J. Redick and Philadelphia’s shooters in the second round, the Celtics chased Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith through screens and closed their air space after the catch.
The two-man game off the ball between Kevin Love and Korver that was so unstoppable against the Raptors had little traction against Boston. Part of that is due to Smart and Brown, but it can also be attributed to the Celtics’ comfort in switching without being caught in a mismatch. Al Horford is the lynchpin of the operation with his ability to guard one through five, giving Boston a unique advantage.
When Korver curls, Brown doesn’t have to go over, or under, his own man screening. Baynes steps back and Brown shoots the gap.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 14, 2018
Baynes switches effectively on Korver, and they try a mismatch post-up which Brown obliterates. pic.twitter.com/bwSEwEVPz9
But even after switching everything, the most impressive part of Boston’s defensive game plan in the opener was their discipline in altering assignments mid-play.
Whenever Cleveland got a mismatch with, say, Kevin Love being guarded by Terry Rozier in the post, the Celtics would bring over the weakside defender to switch places with Rozier while the entry pass was being thrown in to Love. Just like that, the mismatch would poof, disappear.
Boston utilised the same approach in mismatches with James in the post, although when the pass beat the switch, the Celtics would send a double and zone up on the weakside. James, being the great passer he is, can pick that apart with pinpoint dishes to shooters on the perimeter, but with how quickly the Celtics can close out, those shots won’t always be open.
Boston just executed a very cool post switch. Normally you try to get out of a mismatch by switching before the ball arrives. Here, they use the ball’s flight time and switch in that window. Smart, intuitive and effective. pic.twitter.com/aYFhgGo2Gn— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) May 13, 2018
When they are open, the Cavaliers can’t afford to miss. The 3-point shot is one of their primary weapons and while they didn’t generate the cleanest looks in Game 1, they did have several open opportunities they failed to capitalise on, hitting just 16-of-53 (30.2 per cent) on uncontested shots.
There’s a danger in assuming a positive regression to the mean against the Celtics, as the 76ers learned last round. Boston’s defence is so unrelenting and physical that it’s likely there’s some cumulative effect of shooters constantly being banged around.
Even so, it’s very unlikely Cleveland shoot just 4-of-26 from deep again in the series, especially with James now having a game’s worth of film to analyse and see where he can get his team-mates open looks.
There are small adjustments to be made, but the Cavaliers also have the option of breaking out a line-up change that could rob Boston of some of their switchability.
By inserting Tristan Thompson into the starting five alongside Love, Cleveland would most likely force the Celtics to counter by using Aron Baynes. As much as he protects the rim, having Baynes instead of Horford as the five would open up more mismatches for the Cavaliers’ perimeter players.
And if Boston choose to stay small and keep Horford at centre, they’ll be playing with fire as Thompson has a history of eating him up on the offensive glass and frustrating him defensively in head-to-head meetings. With how much the Love-Horford match-up appears to be in the Celtics’ favour, Cleveland would be better off testing out the change right away in Game 2.
More than anything, the Cavaliers can take solace in James bouncing back from one of the worst play-off performances of his career. The TD Garden has seen no shortage of special LeBron moments, especially when his back has been against the wall.
Nevertheless, Boston have set the tone and made it clear they’re going to be the aggressors. It’s Cleveland who will have to prove they’re up to the task.
Game 1 was never close outside of the initial minutes as Boston opened up a 36-18 lead after the first quarter and led by as many as 29 in a comfortable 108-83 victory.
It was the second time in three series the Cavaliers dropped the opener after falling to Indiana in round one, but the gulf between the teams amplified the result.
It was the second-largest Game 1 loss suffered by James in his career, trailing only the 27-point defeat in the 2006 conference semi-finals.
The Celtics held a significant edge in 3-point shooting – 11-of-30 compared to Cleveland’s 4-of-26 – and points in the paint – 60 to 38.
James’ six-game playoff win streak in Boston came to an end as he registered one of the worst postseason performances of his career, scoring 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting to go with nine assists, seven rebounds, seven turnovers and a team-worst plus-minus of minus-32.
LeBron James with a playoff-high seven turnovers already. He had eight total turnovers in four games against the Raptors.— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) May 13, 2018
Despite all the concerning signs that were on display, James played it cool afterward and preached patience.
“I have zero level of concern at this stage,” James said. “I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness. You know, you get better throughout the series. You see ways you can get better throughout the series.
“But I’ve been down 0-1, I’ve been down 0-2, I’ve been down before in the postseason. But for me, there’s never no level of concern, no matter how bad I played tonight with seven turnovers, how inefficient I was shooting the ball.”
The Celtics needed a team effort to keep James in check, but at the centre of that was Marcus Morris, who was inserted into the starting lineup and served as the primary defender on LeBron.
After claiming he was the second-best James defender in the league behind San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard a day before the series tipped off, Morris backed up his talk by holding LeBron to eight points on 3-of-10 shooting and four turnovers in 39 possessions.
“I’m a competitor,” Morris said. “He’s the best player, you know? I’m going to be able to tell my kids [about defending James] one day. It’s exciting. I love the challenge, but like I said, man, it’s a team effort.”
James and the Cavaliers absorbed a haymaker in Game 1. Now, they’ll look to return the favour.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve ever followed my history,” James said. “So I’ve got a good sense of the way they played me and how I’ll play going into Game 2.”
How soon will we see the Death lineup?
The lineup has had a dominant net rating of plus-40.9 points in 54 playoff minutes, so even if it doesn’t start the game, it will be on the floor often.
Can Durant be slowed down?
You know why the Warriors are so difficult to beat in a playoff setting? Even when you take away their primary actions and muck up their beautiful ball-movement, their failsafe is putting the ball in Kevin Durant’s hands and letting him work.
And there’s no one on the planet capable of completely stopping Durant in a one-on-one setting.
Golden State broke out iso Durant in Game 4 against New Orleans and the approach yielded 38 points on 15-of-27 shooting.
It’s an ace-in-the-hole that’s also a back-up plan – a terrifying reality for Houston.
Will Harden isolations backfire?
Harden especially is used in isolation a bunch – 35.1 per cent in the regular season and 35.2 per cent in the playoffs.
That strategy won’t change against the Warriors, but with as versatile as Golden State’s defenders are, he’ll have to be careful not to go down swinging with step-back 3 after step-back 3.
How much will Curry be hunted?
Stephen Curry is far from a bad defender. In fact, he’s fairly underrated on that end of the floor. But in this series, he’s going to be the weak link in the Warriors defence that the Rockets will look to exploit.
Golden State will likely start him matched up against a lesser offensive threat like P.J. Tucker or Luc Mbah a Moute, but expect the Rockets to use his man to screen for Harden in an attempt to get a switch.
The Warriors will do everything they can to avoid that because Harden will both score and draw fouls.
Who will hit open 3-pointers?
As crazy as it sounds, it’s possible this series could come down to something as simple as who makes their open 3-pointers, because there will be opportunities on both sides.
Houston will be happy to help off Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the perimeter, while Golden State will live with 3s from Tucker and Mbah a Moute.
As much attention as the stars are going to attract, the ancillary players will have to leave their mark and take advantage of their chances to give their team the edge.
Houston have done all they can to increase their variance to give them a legit shot at pulling off the upset. But if the Warriors reach top gear, the odds just won’t be in their favour.
Warriors in 6