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Questions About Cleveland: What Happens When the Cavs Go Small?

Cavs fans have been clamoring all season for Mike Brown to play LeBron James at the power forward spot and unleash holy hell on the league in the form of a small line-up with LeBron at the four.

Brown played this sort of line-up sparingly in the regular season, but when he did the results were very, very strong. Only five line-ups featuring LeBron at the four spot logged more than 20 minutes of floor time together during the regular season, according to Basketball Value; none played more than 32 minutes total for the season.

But four of those five line-ups had excellent plus/minus ratings:

1) West, Williams, Parker, LeBron, Varejao: + 34 in 32 minutes

2) Gibson, Williams, Parker, LeBron, Varejao: +18 in 27 minutes

3) Williams, West, J. Williams, LeBron, Varejao: +1 in 26 minutes

4) Williams, West, Moon, LeBron, Varejao: +13 in 26 minutes

5) Gibson, Parker, Moon, LeBro, Varejao: +5 in 20 minutes

Pretty solid numbers. But will Brown have the guts to break this line-up out in the playoffs?

So far, the answer is an emphatic yes. Unit #4 in the above list was actually the Cavs’ 5th-most commonly used unit in the team’s five-game victory over Chicago, according to Basketball Value’s playoff numbers. Compare that to the regular season, in which the most frequently-used line-up with LBJ as the power forward ranked just 21st among all Cleveland five-man combinations with those 32 minutes logged.

And how’d that small unit do against the Bulls? Plus 10 in just over 12 minutes of playing time together. Of course, 12 minutes is nothing—most of that +10 can be explained by a 6:41 stretch at the end of Game 2 in which Moon went crazy and hit three three-pointers to help the Cavs ice the game.

But LeBron has also logged smaller amounts of post-season minutes as the power forward in combinations with Shaq, Antawn Jamison and Zydrunas Ilgauskas playing center, according to Basketball Value.

Mike Brown is going to use this line-up, and the Celtics will have to be ready for it.

The natural counter to any Cavs small line-up with Varejao or Jamison at center would seem to be: Rondo-Ray-TA-Pierce-KG/Glen Davis.

Defensively, I’m fine with that line-up matching up against the Cavs’ small groups outlined above.

Offensively, though, I worry that the team can go through cold stretches when Rajon Rondo and Tony Allen share the court. We saw this against the Heat, when Erik Spoelstra went to a zone immediately when he saw the TA/Rondo back court and stuck with it until Doc replaced either Rondo or TA with a shooter.

Cleveland won’t play a zone, but they’ll certainly defend a Rondo/TA line-up like any team would: by daring one of those two to beat them with jump shots. The little evidence we have from this season suggests line-ups with a TA/Rondo combination are susceptible to an offensive slump.

Overall, the team scored about 3.7 fewer points per 100 possessions this season with TA on the floor versus with him on the bench, according to 82games.com.

And of the 5 line-ups featuring both TA and Rondo that logged at least 20 minutes together this season, four scored fewer points per possession than the C’s overall average, according to Basketball Value. Three of those line-ups scored signficantly below the C’s average points per possession rate.

On the flip side, the two of those line-ups that logged by far the most minutes together were brutally tough on defense, holding opponents to New Jersey-like scoring rates of fewer than a point per possession.

The sample sizes are small, but I’d bet that those trends would maintain themselves through larger samples: Line-ups with TA/Rondo together would be elite defensively and average offensively. That’s the trade-off.

And that’s generally a trade-off I’m OK with, particularly in small doses, and the Cavs aren’t going to be rolling a small line-up out for more than a few minutes per game.

But a few minutes in the 3rd quarter can swing a playoff game, and a single playoff game can swing an entire season. The C’s must be able to counter Cleveland’s small line-up defensively without suffering through a dry spell that leads to an 8-0 or 10-0 run.

This is the sort of problem for which Eddie House was an ideal solution. Remember when the Bulls went small in the playoffs last season? The Celtics offense stalled out when Doc inserted TA as the fourth small in the C’s counter line-up; he choose defense over offense, and it hurt the Celtics. Watch the end of regulation in Game 6 of the Chicago series again if want to see what small line-up offensive stagnation looks like.

Then Doc went with Eddie House in Game 7, and he shot the Bulls out of the playoffs.

Eddie House is gone. Nate Robinson is here. If Doc really believes Nate Robinson has a pivotal five- or 10-minutes of post-season hoops in him, those minutes could come in this scenario. Michael Finley is also here, and he could play in TA’s spot (or Rondo’s) to add some shooting.

Either way, it’s something to watch or in the Brown/Doc chess match.

  • Ray Leighton

    I’m definitely happy with that Rondo-TA-Ray-Pierce-KG lineup — that was one of the units that Hollinger identified as one of the five most-efficient-defensive units this season. And if we don’t shut down the Cavs, if we let the scores get up too high, then we are dead anyway. That lineup just needs to have some extra plays to get Ray open and the ball in his hands — who on Cleveland’s small lineup is going to chase Ray out at the arc? I like that Doc and the team has some extra time to work out some new plays. I also like Zach’s suggestion to use Rondo (or TA?) as the screener if the Cavs back off them.

  • Ray

    What’s the story with Leon? I can’t help escape the feeling in the pit of my stomach that he will win at least one game for the Cavs in this series…

  • DRJ1

    I don’t believe Mike Brown is a very smart fellow. Seems to me you’re giving him too much credit…. he’ll probably stick to his bigs.

  • Perry


    I’m scared of the impending POWE factor too.


    Mike Brown is not a smart fellow, but you don’t have to be Auerbach when you own the best player on earth.


    I watched game 2 intently. Chicago played about as well as they could, and Moon was a difference maker before Lebron took over. Luckily this version of Celtics are deep at the wing.

    That second + – group may have a favorable differential, but it would enable Doc to counter with 3, if not 4 perimeter shooters (Nate/Ray/Finley/Pierce) should he decide to rest Rondo at some point in the 2nd quarter. If not, Kevin or Sheed at the 5 will suffice as another efficient scorer. By the way, Gibson played a grand total of 3 minutes in the Chicago series.

    Don’t assume we’ll see a Rondo/TA back court for the reasons you mentioned. While it’s true that back court won’t shoot the Celts back into a game, it’s entirely reasonable to assume it might provide easy transition baskets off steals — if the Celts go into one of their scoring funks.

    My thinking would be to sub Ray for Quis. Take Pierce off LBJ and move him in the 2 spot. Pierce will abuse any Cavalier 2 guard. Let Brown react. If he subs LBJ and goes athletic you stay small with a combination of Ray/Finley/Quis or TA (Lebron would have to be on the bench), and use Baby or Sheed at the 5. Let’s not forget Quis can play the point as Rondo catches his breath. Rondo can be used as a sceener and would be very effective rolling to the rim.

    I really like the potential match ups for the Celts, but in any series adjustments will be made and it will come down to stops and superstars making big shots.

    I’m dreaming of Finley having a PJ moment in this series.

  • Perry

    hola yo no se que es esto me pueden explicar yo estoy aqui en linea

  • mitch

    ever since this lebron james injury report, this series will be a lose lose for the celtics…if they beat cleveland, its because lebron was injured….and if they lose to cleveland, its because they’re old and can’t beat a banged up james…c’s wont credit for this now because lebron is playing the mind game

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    I don’t care if they beat Cleveland with LeBron healthy, without LeBron at all, or with LeBron playing on crutches. The perception of the fan boys and the screaming sports “commentators” means nothing.

  • rav

    Switch out TA for Finley in the small-lineup counter lineup. Adds a shooting threat. Removes a defensive player, but Moon is not a danger anyway.

  • Ian


    At least two or three attempts from beyond the arc to see if hes feeling it against West… it’s possible that he could get on a hot streak and solve this very problem!!

  • Ian

    But I do not recall a Rondo/Ray/TA lineup. Is the problem the dual presence of Rondo and TA, or the absence of a shooter at guard?

  • http://hotinclevelandfanclub.com Marcelo Tibbles

    Betty White is Great I genuinely hope she decides to do much more than 10 episodes. I can’t wait until the calendar comes out in Sept it will probably be awesome.

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