I set the over/under on half court possessions during which LeBron would guard Rajon Rondo at 12, and I suggested you take the under. Turns out, I was right—for once.
By my unofficial count (i.e. I haven’t gone and re-watched the game yet), LeBron guarded Rondo intentionally on just eight half court possessions in Game 5. Six of those eight possessions came in stretch of about 3:30 spanning the 1st and 2nd quarters. This was the only stretch in which the Cavs gave the LeBron/Rondo match-up an extended audition.
And guess what?
It worked, at least by the numbers. And the fact that it worked means Mike Brown must answer questions about why he never went back to it in earnest after the 1st quarter, instead allowing Rondo to destroy Mo Williams as Boston pulled away in the 2nd half.
The Celtics scored a grand total of one point on those six early LeBron/Rondo possessions. During three of the first four, the C’s went into isolation mode:
(1:47), 1st: The Cavs come out of a time-out with West, Moon, James, Ilgauskas and Varejao. The West-Moon combination was an obvious signal that the Cavs would try Rondo on LeBron, and it shows why Mike Brown isn’t willing to commit to the LeBron/Rondo match-up in any serious way. He does not like the idea of Mo Williams on Ray Allen and Anthony Parker on Paul Pierce—match-ups he’d have to endure if he put LeBron on Rondo within the context of Cleveland’s starting line-up. So he goes big with West (for Ray) and Moon (for Pierce) and unleashes James on Rondo.
On this play, it works. The C’s isolate Pierce against Moon at the right elbow and have everyone else clear to the left side or the baseline. Pierce tries a step-back jumper over Moon (who is 6’8”). It misses.
I’ll accept this isolation play if Parker is guarding Pierce. But with Moon in, this is the exact sort of shot Cleveland is probably happy to see.
(1:24, 1st): The C’s go isolation again, this time with Sheed against Varejao on the left block. Sheed’s reach gives him a nice advantage, but he slams Varejao in the chest with his left elbow as he backs Varejao down with the dribble. Offensive foul. Two isos, two turnovers.
(58 seconds, 1st): The C’s get out in delayed transition, but Bron holds up at half court to take Rondo. Rajon gives the ball up to TA, who drives into the paint, finds nothing and attempts to kick the ball out to Pierce in the corner. He throws it to Moon instead. Turnover.
(15 seconds, 1st): We should really throw this one out of the sample, since it’s an end-of-quarter possession and the C’s therefore spread the floor and let Pierce go to work. The Cavs use their last foul with 3.7 seconds left. The C’s inbound to Rondo, and Parker takes him on a switch with LeBron. Rondo shoots just after the buzzer. An empty trip, but one that really has little to do with the LeBron/Rondo strategy.
A thing to notice about this stretch: Ray Allen is on the bench and Tony Allen is in the game. The Cavaliers were comfortable throwing LeBron at Rondo here because they could hide a weaker or smaller defender on Tony Allen. The Cavs were reluctant to use LeBron on Rondo when the C’s had both Pierce and Allen in the game. This puts Doc in position to dictate to Mike Brown and quash the LeBron/Rondo match-up whenever he feels like it.
In any case, the C’s opened the 2nd quarter by attacking the LeBron/Rondo match-up more creatively on back-to-back possessions:
(11:06, 2nd): Boston runs one of its favorite sets, with Rondo dribbling at the top of the arc and a big guy at each elbow. Rondo has the option to pass to one of the bigs and cut or use one of the bigs as a screener. He chooses the latter and draws a non-shooting foul on his drive to the hoop.
The C’s inbound and run a Rondo/Baby screen/roll. LeBron can’t keep up as Rondo turns the corner and launches a lay-up. It hits high off the glass and misses, but Davis gets the rebound and draws a foul. He hits 1-of-2.
(10:40, 2nd): Rondo chills out in the left corner while Ray Allen and Big Baby run a screen/roll at the top. Ray gets into the lane but the Cavs deflect his pass to Tony Allen under the hoop.
The C’s take the ball out and attack this defense the simplest way they can: By giving the ball to Rondo and having him drive at James. Rondo jukes LeBron at the foul line with a nasty right-to-left cross over, draws the defense and dishes to Davis for a lay-up. The Cavs contest it well, and Baby misses. A good idea, though.
So that’s one point on six possessions. And yet we never saw this defense again.
And the question Mike Brown has to ask himself is: Should we have seen that defense again? Because the Celtics tore the Cavaliers apart once Cleveland went back to its traditional defense, and they did it by attacking the Cavaliers weakest defender: Mo Williams.
The Cavs went back to the Anthony Parker/Rondo and Mo Williams/Ray Allen match-ups to start the 2nd half, and Ray Allen promptly made back-to-back three-pointers over and around Mo Williams. So what did Mike Brown do? He switched Mo Williams onto Rajon Rondo, who at that point had scored 0 points on 0-of-2 shooting.
And Rajon Rondo went crazy. A lay-up, an assist to KG on a screen/roll, two more lay-ups, a mid-range jumper, a trip to the line, a pick-and-pop to KG and a dish to Ray for a three-pointer. All of this happened between the 9:47 and 4:24 marks of the 3rd quarter, a stretch in which the C’s turned a 10-point lead into a 21-point lead.
In that 5:23 stretch, Rondo scored 9 points and dished 3 assists, one of which led to a three-pointer. That’s means Rajon accounted for 16 points in 5:24.
That stretch effectively ended the game. They say you should dance with who brung ya, or whatever. Mike Brown did that, and he paid the price.