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.
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