Watching the 3rd quarter of Game 2 live, it struck me as possibly the single best defensive quarter the Celtics have played so far this season. Considering the opponent, location and stakes, holding the Cavaliers to just 12 points outranked any other quarter’s worth of defense the C’s put in this season.
Or so it seemed at the moment.
I re-watched every Cleveland possession in that quarter, excluding fast breaks, to see if the C’s really defended brilliantly or if the Cavs missed open looks or overlooked easy options.
And you know what?
The C’s defense was that good.
The Cavs had 19 possessions in the half court during the 3rd quarter, and they scored points on only six of them—10 points in all.
What can we learn from those 19 possessions going forward?
Well, here are some interesting things:
1) The C’s, and KG, shut down every screen/roll combination Cleveland threw at them.
The Cavs ran a screen/roll on 11 of those 19 possessions, and only two of those 11 screen/rolls led directly to scores. (The Cavs scored on two more of those 11 possessions, but only after the initial screen/roll produced nothing and they reset to run something else).
The Cavs used six different screen/roll combos, with the most common being James/Jamison and Williams/Jamison (used three times each). James was the ball-handler on seven of the 11 plays.
Here’s the interesting thing: The C’s did nothing fancy to defend these plays, with the exception of one possession (2:39) in which they switched. On the others, they did what the Celtics do: They had the big man guarding the screener (almost always KG during this quarter) jump out to cut off the ball-handler while the other defender fought past the screen. Then KG would rush to find the screener again. They didn’t trap, they didn’t overplay in one direction. They stuck to their normal strategy.
This was stunningly effective, especially considering Jamison is a threat to either roll to the hoop or pop out for a three. He scored once rolling to the hoop (7:26), but it was a a ridiculously tough 9-foot runner with Perk in his face, KG on his back and his momentum drifting away from the basket.
I can’t stress this enough: KG’s defense in this stretch was phenomenal. It was as good as he looked all season. It was nearly (dare I say it) 2008-level. He destroyed the Cleveland screen/roll almost single-handedly. This only reinforces the importance of his health going forward.
2) Ray Allen guarded LeBron on 11 of those 19 possessions. The Cavs scored on just three of those 11 Ray-LBJ possessions, and two of those were Shaq buckets that resulted from isolation post-ups.
In all the pre-series analysis, we mentioned a bunch of guys who would likely spend time on LBJ. Ray Allen was not one of those guys. He took LeBron during the 3rd quarter in part because Paul Pierce started the quarter with three fouls and the Cavs went at Pierce on their first two possessions. So there were extenuating circumstances.
But you don’t leave Ray Allen on LeBron James for 11 possessions—including nine straight—if James is exploiting the match-up. The C’s had Tony Allen on the bench, and they were willing to put Pierce on LeBron a few times despite foul problems.
So how’d Ray do it?
The answer his simple: He worked his butt off on the screen/roll. Ray can’t guard LeBron one-on-one in isolations or in the post, but he can fight over screens or dart under them and appear again in front of LeBron. And that’s what he did. LeBron couldn’t turn the corner easily, and if he chose to shoot a jumper, Ray was in his face.
3) When the Cavs isolate LeBron on the wing, they are playing for the corner three on the opposite side.
This is a brutal play to defend, and the C’s definitely got lucky once—and maybe twice—when the Cavs failed to hit a wide-open corner three following an LBJ skip pass.
Let’s take a look. Here’s a possession from about the 5:20 mark. LeBron isolates against Ray on the right wing. Keep your eye on Anthony Parker and his man, Rajon Rondo:
You catch that?
This is what I mean by overloading the strong side:
Knowing Ray has no chance to guard LBJ by himself, Rondo has left Anthony Parker alone and planted himself at the edge of the paint. Parker has looped around the three-point arc on his way to the left corner; you can see him next to KG in the above photo.
That’s not by accident. KG knows LeBron wants to make that skip pass to Parker, and he stations himself right in LeBron’s passing lane and stays there until his guy, Jamison, moves in a way that forces KG out of the passing lane.
And only then does LeBron make the pass:
You can see KG has drifted just a bit toward the foul line to stay near Jamison. LeBron sees his chance and throws the pass.
Whose job is it to close out on Parker? That now falls to Kendrick Perkins, who you can see on the left baseline. Problem: Perk’s guy, Anderson Varejao, is there to get in Perk’s way. This is all according to Mike Brown’s script.
Luckily, LeBron’s pass is too high, and Parker has no chance to catch and shoot. Perk actually does a really nice job curling around Varejao without veering too far toward the foul line, and he would have been able to at least get close to Parker had the pass been on the money.
But this is dangerous business against a passer such as LeBron. And it wasn’t an isolated incident.
The Cavs ran the same play again two minutes later:
One again, Allen guards LeBron on the right wing, and once again Anthony Parker’s guy (Paul Pierce) leaves Parker to help on LeBron. And once again, Parker curls around to the left corner.
But here’s where mixing up strategies is key. Pierce plays this differently than Rondo did. He stays with Parker until he reaches the right elbow, hoping to fool LeBron into thinking he’s going to follow Parker across the court:
Check out Pierce taking a peek behind him. He never intended to follow Parker to the left corner. He waited until LeBron thought it was safe to drive into the paint and sprinted down to double team him. It’s a really smart play.
But you can bet LeBron is going to be ready for it in Game 3 and beyond. Which means we may have to cross our fingers and hope Parker misses some threes that look a lot like this one from the 9:20 mark of the 3rd:
It’s not the same play, but it’s the same concept: Isolate LBJ on the right wing, wait for the help, hit Parker with a skip pass.
He missed. Let’s hope he keeps missing for a few more games.