It’s hard to understand just how the Boston Celtics are leading a LeBron James’ led team 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals without two of their biggest and brightest stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
One can claim it to be the proficiency of which the Celtics’ offense has operated, posting a 1.19 PPP (points per possession) while committing only 14 turnovers in the first two games of this series. Or, another can assert it to the brilliance of head coach Brad Stevens, who has outclassed Tyronn Lue with his in-game adjustments and exquisite out-of-bounds sets.
But, in actuality, that doesn’t fully explain why the Celtics, the gritty, grimy, and undermanned Celtics, are dominating the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because it’s not simply the performance of a coach or player. It’s Boston’s collective unit, specifically on one-end of the floor, that’s defined this series so far.
If you haven’t caught on by now, I’m referencing the Celtics’ defense: a strong and cohesive unit built on trust that runs on one heartbeat. Throughout Games 1 and 2, the Celtics’ defensive versatility has flummoxed the Cavaliers, mainly through its’ ability to switch everything effectively.
Boston can do this because of its litany of wings and athletic forwards
For a defense to “switch” everything, it has to have players capable of defending multiple positions throughout a game. Fortunately, the Celtics have those types of players and then some in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford.
The Celtics became the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA this season, largely because of this approach. By switching, Boston is able to stay in front of ball-handlers, stick to shooters, and avoid having to help with extra defenders during most defensive possessions.
As Philadelphia 76ers’ coach Brett Brown stated in the conference semifinals, “They got apples for apples on many, many different matchups.”
In Game 1 of this series, much emphasis was made into ‘containing’ the all-powerful LeBron James.
And Boston did just that, sending body after body in LeBron’s direction. As you’ll see in these clips, it was a combination of Horford’s size and strength on the perimeter, Morris’ speed and discipline, and Marcus Smart’s grit that held LeBron to 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting from the field, and 0-5 from 3.
For the most part, the Celtics were able to keep James away from the basket, which is priority No. 1 when playing the Cavs. LeBron entered the conference finals having averaged 14.4 points per game on 77.7 shooting in the restricted area through the first two rounds of the playoffs. This tied for the most he’s averaged in the restricted area in any postseason or regular season in his career.
In Game 1, though, the Celtics forced LeBron into taking only 5 (five!) shots from the restricted area.
Limiting LeBron’s touches in the restricted area goes in line with what the Celtics did to the league’s two most LeBron-like players in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the first round, the Celtics limited the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmp to an average of 8.3 shots in the restricted area after averaging a league-high 9.3 in the regular season. And in the conference semis, the Celtics did the same to the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, who averaged just 6.6 attempts in the restricted area after averaging 8.6 in the first round vs. Miami
Even behind a heroic performance from LeBron in Game 2, the Celtics switching ability caused problems to the other Cavs
As expected, LeBron shook off his Game 1 performance by pouring in 42 points in Game 2. However, because Boston did such a great job pressuring the other Cavs, James’ heroics fell short.
For the Celtics, the point of the pressure was twofold. First, it was to make the Cavs uncomfortable in trying to run their offense, to push their actions away from the basket and deeper into the shot clock. Second, it was to force the other Cavs to put the ball on the floor.
There’s a myriad of examples of Boston doing this in Game 2, but we’ll start late in the 3rd quarter with the Celtics up 5. This play begins with James swinging the ball from the top of the key to a cutting George Hill along the right wing. This gets sniffed out immediately by Terry Rozier, who smothers Hill on the catch. As this play develops, Rozier continues to hound Hill, going under a Jeff Green screen and forcing Hill to pass it up.
Boston defends this action so well on the perimeter that Marcus Smart finishes the play by ditching Kevin Love in the post so he can close out Kyle Korver in the corner.
Again, in this next example, the Celtics frustrate the Cavs by playing as one unit. Despite Cleveland throwing a new wrinkle at Boston, staring the offense with Jeff Green (who is guarded by Tatum), the Celtics cover it up.
This goes as follows: once Green passes it to Love, Tatum denies him from getting the ball back. This leaves Horford on Love, a matchup that’s no problem for him due to his athleticism and strength.
As you’ll see, Horford shuts off any clean pass Love can make to a cutting a Cavalier, so his only option is to pass is to JR Smith. If you can’t tell already, this slow movement drains 13 seconds off the shot clock, and not one Celtic is off their man. But, the best part of this defensive clinic by Boston is at the end, where Smart moves his feet beautifully to cause a Smith heave with 4 seconds on the shot clock.
Now that Kyrie Irving is in Boston, there isn’t a Cavalier not named James for the Celtics to be afraid of off-the-dribble. And with no one who can penetrate, this makes the task of switching that much easier for the Celtics.
Because Green is flat-footed, Horford shuts off this baseline drive just enough for Tatum to pick his pocket on the strong side.
Lastly, with Boston up 7 with 11 minutes left in the game, Boston shows why they’re the NBA’s best defense. This possession is probably Boston’s best example of switching to provide an advantage for them on defense. Here, Horford switches with Tatum so he can deny Rodney Hood of an open look.
Instead of swinging it to the other side of the floor, Hood makes a mistake by trying to drive against Horford. This proves costly because as Hood gets deeper into the paint, Horford closes off his space to operate, putting Hood in no man’s land with the ball.
The end result is an errant pass/turnover which leads to foul shots by Semi Ojeleye.
Cleveland attempted only 11 uncontested shots in Game 2, and Game 1 wasn’t much better as 23 of the Cavs’ shots were uncontested. All in all, this is because of the Celtics’ ability to completely clog off driving lanes and open looks from nearly everywhere on the floor.
“We speed ’em up,” Smart said after Game 2, courtesy of Jon Schulman of NBA.com. “When we pressure, it’s hard for them to get to their spots. It’s hard for them to get into their stuff. Then it just causes rushed shots that they’re probably not used to taking.”
Smart is right. Nearly every Celtic, 1-5, switch everything. They rarely double, and focus on keeping whomever they are defending from getting a clean look at the rim.
This defensive style has carried Boston all season, with or without Irving and Hayward. The Celtics are the best defensive team left in these playoffs, and because of it, they’re now only two wins away from making the Finals, a run that very few predicted in early April.