Sports

Outlet Pass Playoff Edition: LeBron James Vs. the Boston Celtics Just Got Good

An extremely close look at how Game 4 changed the Eastern Conference Finals.
May 22, 2018, 4:41pm
Photo by Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports

The Outlet Pass is normally a weekly roundup of observations, questions, and predictions from Michael Pina's NBA notebook. This playoff edition covers Game 4 of the ECF between the Celtics and Cavaliers, and what it means for both teams going forward.

1. How Boston is Guarding LeBron James

This is the series. There are no simple or obvious decisions when devising a strategy to slow down LeBron James. As a low-post mastodon with incomparable vision and a picture-perfect fadeaway jumper, he creates some of the most fatalistic scenarios in NBA history. Aside from turning the ball over seven times, his performance in Game 4 was masterful: 44 points in 42 minutes while shooting 60.7 percent from the floor and 13-for-16 inside the paint.

The Celtics tried almost everything, but their base move whenever Cleveland used Terry Rozier's man to set a ball screen (which was approximately 39 million times) was to switch, try and “scram” Rozier out (meaning they'd execute another switch before Cleveland could access the mismatch—something that doesn’t really work when James is handling the ball), stay at home on three-point shooters, and have Rozier scratch and claw for every inch.

(Here’s what Rozier told me last week when I asked about his mentality in these situations: “We switch 1 through 3, so if my man sets a screen I’ve got to guard LeBron. I’m attacking him, making him use as much energy as I can. That’s our main focus, trying to get him to use as much energy as he can, whether it’s catching the ball, dribbling the ball, whatever it is. That’s what we’ve been working on.”)

In Game 4, Cleveland’s fundamental strategy was to hunt Rozier down and see what they could get after that. Here’s what happened early on after Marcus Smart missed a shot and was forced to pick James up in transition.

James waves for Tristan Thompson to flatten out and then gets Rozier on him near the top of the key, but everything Boston does before and after that is excellent. Smart leaps forward on the switch to contest Hill’s pass to James, while Semi Ojeleye 2.9’s the paint and Al Horford plants himself in position to help the helper should James drive past Rozier. Meanwhile, everyone on Cleveland does Boston a favor by staying stagnant. There’s no space for James to do much of anything, so he settles for the type of fallaway that sometimes feels like it’s more than two points whenever it goes in, which is apparently "always."

The Celtics don't necessarily want Rozier on an island guarding LeBron, but they also know their options are limited. Here’s the downside for those aforementioned scram switches whenever James gets a split second to survey a scrambling defense.

Smart once again does a terrific job contesting Smith's pass and forces the ball to arc high over his fingertips, which gives Aron Baynes enough time to rotate over from the opposite block. What happens next helps explain why the Cavs are so deadly. They have Kyle Korver and Kevin Love spotted up on the weak side as Thompson rumbles through the paint. How do you stop that? Jayson Tatum is initially petrified to come off Korver’s body, so LeBron skips it to a wide-open Love as Rozier sprints back like a chicken with his head cut off, not yet knowing who to guard. Tatum rotates over to contest Love, Rozier changes direction a beat too late, and the result is corner Korver, aka certain death.

Open threes in the half-court weren’t strictly created by LeBron, though. Here’s what happens whenever they didn’t stay solid (or, “SOLID!!!!” as Brad Stevens can be heard shouting repeatedly every time there’s a mismatch down low).

The big adjustment to a play like this, assuming a switch is your best bet with the floor this spread? Remind Horford to keep his arms wide and get up into Hill a little more than he is—similar to what Smart did in those earlier plays. Horford is understandably worried about Hill getting a step on him, but earlier in this series he had success pressuring smalls who’re clearly more interested in exploiting a mismatch elsewhere than attacking themselves. Hill is way too comfortable on this pass to J.R. He wouldn’t be if Horford was draped all over him.

Most of those aforementioned scram switches actually occurred whenever Rozier switched onto Love, who’s never the ball-handler, which affords Boston more time to swap in a big and let Rozier scurry to the weak side. Love finished 3-for-12 in Game 4, in large part thanks to well-executed possessions like this.

On the play above, Rozier switches three times, twice off the ball. Here’s another example.

When LeBron was involved, Stevens tried to dissuade easy switches by moving Tatum onto George Hill and sliding Rozier onto Smith or Korver. Cleveland responded by either letting LeBron isolate against a 20-year-old rookie or using whoever Rozier was on to set the ball screen. They were obsessed.

Rozier is immediately cremated in this play, in part thanks to Marcus Morris worrying about his foul trouble. But all in all their starting point guard fought hard on these possessions and was hardly the reason Boston lost. The Celtics’ defensive rating with Rozier on the floor was 101.9, which was best on the team. He hit a few tough threes, finished with 11 assists (not including two hockey assists), put constant pressure on Cleveland’s defense, and at one point forced LeBron to slide over and guard him one-on-one. Look at his effort on this play.

It’s hard to sustain this type of activity for 40 minutes, but cut into Rozier’s playing time and Boston’s offense will suffer. If he hits two more open threes and goes 5-for-9 from deep, Game 4’s entire complexion changes.

Elsewhere, when Cleveland put LeBron at the four against Boston’s large lineup—meaning Horford had the primary assignment—the Cavs either let James get to his right hand and blow past the slower big with no screen and a spread floor, or ran a 4-5 pick-and-roll to get Baynes on an island. The Celtics have walked away from that latter situation unscathed in this series, but they did so covered in gasoline while LeBron toyed with a book of matches. It’s something to avoid at all costs going forward.

There is no right answer when the question is “How do we stop LeBron?” But sometimes how you execute a strategy for 48 minutes is more important than the strategy you’re asked to execute in the first place. Expect the Celtics to switch and scramble for the rest of this series, with the hope that they hit more shots on the other end and LeBron is two percent less effective going forward than he was in Game 4.

And at the end of the day, they also allowed an efficient 15 points in the six minutes James sat. That's always a recipe for disaster.

2. Things Aren’t Going Well For Jordan Clarkson

If your name is Dan Gilbert, you should stop reading this article right...here.

The Cavaliers owe Clarkson about $26 million over the next two years. He's an inefficient guard whose grand contribution to Game 4 was this bungling of a routine pocket pass. He is not worth $26 million, regardless of how many years that money is spread over.

You can tell Clarkson is in his own head right now. The pocket pass is there, sure, but so is a wide-open jumper. The exact shot he’s in the NBA to knock down. He’s averaging 4.7 points per game on 32 percent shooting in this series. Cleveland was outscored by five points in his four minutes in Game 4, and I wouldn't be surprised if Ty Lue benches him entirely in Game 5.

3. Jaylen Brown’s Irrepressible Confidence

Boston’s offensive strategy in this series whenever Brown and Korver share the court is to have Brown eat Korver’s lunch. Here’s what happened during their first dance in Game 4.

Even after Korver briefly morphed into Tony Allen and blocked Brown twice before he nearly stripped him on a drive, the Celtics repeatedly picked at this matchup, knowing nine times out of ten it’s their most glaring advantage and something they can leverage to create efficient opportunities elsewhere.

Here’s one of the more hopeful sequences Boston can look at from the loss. Instead of wilting on the perimeter and letting Horford drip into a post-up, Brown ducks in with incredible determination, forces a double, then kicks out to Morris for three.

Throughout the game, Brown wanted the ball in his hands to show what he’s capable of, to feel his way through a battle Boston needs him to impact with relentless aggression.

He finished with 25 points on 23 shots. That’s not great, and includes several missed layups/dunks that normally go in. But the silver lining of that performance is how undeterred he looked after early struggles and a dreadful Game 3. Some can also look at portions of his night as selfish, a way for Brown to get himself going instead of doing what’s best for the team (like his decision to go early and miss a dunk at the end of the first quarter instead of holding for the last shot).

But he’s also 21 years old and guarding maybe the best player ever on a team that needs him to score if they want to be successful. There’s clear pressure in front of his face and Brown is willing to confront it. Despite some of his costly decisions, that’s good news for the Celtics.

4. Stevens Engraved a Bullseye on Love’s Back

From the opening tip, the Celtics—along with just about any other team that plays the Cavaliers in a playoff series—wanted to attack Love as often as possible, which, early on, meant involving Morris in their offense a bit more than any club in the conference finals ever should. Love hedged on pick-and-rolls involving Rozier and Morris and had moderate success on every other play. Sometimes he’d be a step behind and give up a driving lane, and sometimes he’d force a tough (and unnecessary) long two.

Photo by Ken Blaze - USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics would be wise to screen the screener before this action to try and get him on an even more imposing offensive weapon in Game 5, but, as we’ll get to in the next section, they did a pretty good job attacking him with Horford in the second half.

5. Al Horford vs. Tristan Thompson

Whoever wins this matchup will probably win the series. According to NBA.com, Thompson has spent 137 possessions defending Horford in the playoffs, which is more than he guarded number two on that list (Jonas Valanciunas) by a whopping 91 possessions. All of Thompson’s contract, value, and physical ability is in Cleveland to slow Boston’s most important player down. So far, he’s succeeded.

Horford isn’t having the same type of success in the post that he had against the Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers, and is shooting just 27.3 percent with Thompson on him. The Celtics attacked Thompson with Horford on Game 4's very first play, and here’s what happened.

More often than not when they get matched up, the result is a tough fallaway that Horford’s shown he can make...just not after he spends eight seconds wrestling Thompson for position. The Celtics are +30 in this series when Horford is on the floor and Thompson is on the bench, and his individual scoring numbers are those of a star. When both are in, Boston is -20.

But Horford is still great, and the Celtics averaged 112.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in Game 4 for a reason. Part of that is thanks to all the damage he does without the ball in his hands. Cleveland sometimes treats him like Steph Curry.

The Celtics opened the second half looking for ways to get Horford off Thompson and onto Love, too. They’d have him come off a wide pin-down, go straight into a 4-5 pick-and-roll—wild stuff for someone his size—and then establish position on the opposite block.

Horford would also race up the floor in semi-transition and body Love early in the shot clock while Thompson dragged behind after a fruitless lunge at the offensive glass.

On the offensive end, Horford was and will forever be happy to shade off Thompson to help on LeBron’s mismatches. In rare instances where Thompson took it upon himself to score, the Cavaliers died a sad death.

5. The Obligatory Marcus Smart Play

His defense on LeBron was as feisty and as effective as anyone his size can reasonably provide. He deflected two fewer passes and recovered two fewer loose balls than the entire Cavaliers roster and capably boxed out Thompson on a few key plays. But the one sequence I’ll most remember from Smart in Game 4 happened on a play I’ll go to my grave convinced was intentional.

Instead of letting Korver get a clean look off Thompson’s flare screen, Smart simply plows through the pick and sends Thompson to the free-throw line. One point is fewer than three. Smart is a genius.