This article is a quick, on-the-go analysis on Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. I don’t know whether it is a one-off piece or the first outline of a bigger picture.
Boston has devastated Cleveland at home in game-1 to the surprise of many, displaying solid defense and aggressive offense.
Well, hopefully the Cs playing well at home is no longer a shock to anyone, but I’ve heard so many people demeaning Brad Stevens’ bunch as “yeah, they play well, that’s cute, but Cavs in 5” that I’m breaking the silence in this almost dead blog to come out and remind some of the podcasters out there that playing well matters.
It isn’t cute, nor is it pointless; not even against the likes of LeBron James, for that matter.
I’m going to be honest: I probably gave up getting serious about basketball journalism a while ago now, and while the enjoyment I get in doing things that don’t concern journalism is a big part of why, the state of basketball talks especially in the broadcast spectrum concerns me a bit. I see a lot of opinions that may well be defended appropriately and accurately but often aren’t at all, motivations and arguments burned at the stake of partisanship. LeBron James wins and so he’s the GOAT, otherwise he’s a choker.
I understand the lack of depth coming from the fans: they’re paying customers. They have no obligation to understand the intricacies of basketball. But journalism is on the brink of toeing the same line, abiding by the Law of Clutch and Choke, sacrificing the tactical aspects of why players perform better in some situations compared to others at the altar of “you’re a paid athlete and a star, find a way”.
Can I ask you something? Doesn’t that “find a way” part fascinate you? Aren’t you in it for the strategic marvel of two 15-men units trying to outsmart, outmuscle, outskill each other?
While I do root for teams (not in basketball, mainly in soccer as it’s the biggest thing in Europe where I live and the strategic aspect of it is even more dramatized), I don’t believe in rooting against players.
If you don’t enjoy the stars of today’s game, it’s nobody else’s but your loss. You’re paying money for a product and electing not to enjoy it on purpose.
Ok, I’m sorry about this rant, I know it could last forever and I’m gonna stop here, but to summarize what I wanna say: ask yourself how great teams win (or lose, for that matter), what strategies elevate them and what opponents frustrate them. Yes, players matter. Yes, having superstars matters. But no great team stops short of studying where greatness sources from, and no great team hasn’t suffered strategic losses and setbacks.
LeBron James has just concluded his first rendez-vous against the Celtics’ defensive strategy, and the answers they gave to the problems his ability pose did not allow a timely retort.
The Celtics have shot better than Cleveland, a feat that may or may not come back in this series on a steady basis. Cleveland has taken relatively open shots that today just didn’t go down and some other day will drop. But LeBron James has been flustered, canceled out.
In short, the Celtics have programmed a defensive principle of accepting to be beaten.
LeBron is a star. Even when the ball screens he receives are less than ideal and the Cavs cannot concoct a defensive switch, LeBron will beat his man.
The problem is the Celtics have prepared for that occurrence to happen more often than not, and have another man ready to wall off his penetration. Ready as in “already left his man, with three teammates floating in between the remaining 4 opponents”.
When LeBron hits the post with a smaller defender on him, that help defense may turn into a double team, but only when the positioning of his teammates allows it (ergo: the incoming double team will cover one or two passing options). The Celtics look to avoid switching on every screen if the screen itself doesn’t force it, but they have the bodies to make multiple switching efforts to little effect on the offense. That isn’t exclusive to the Celtics, but the readiness for the following bit of “LeBron got the switch, what do we do?” is the difference, as even then LeBron still can’t count on his physical and technical tools to guarantee him an open lane because of the aforementioned help defense being viewed as not an emergency, but a natural prosecution of the defensive possession.
What makes this defensive effort pay off in a 48-minute game? Off-ball stillness on offense helps (defenders can focus on LeBron without fear of losing their men), LeBron posting up on a 1-man weak side helps (the double team is bound to cover up some passing lanes), Cleveland taking it easy offensively helps (many times today Cleveland has passed its way to an open shot, but has taken too long to initiate the mechanism that enabled it ending up with a shot-clock violation), Cleveland missing open shots pretty much seals the deal.
In the series I don’t count on that last predicament to occur often, and I’d be surprised if Cleveland failed to win at least one game on the account of hot shooting from deep (this convulsive defensive principle Boston displays of closing in when the ball’s close to the hoop and opening back out to defend kickouts is bound to give some shots away). I’d be just as surprised if Cleveland didn’t up their pace offensively especially at home – once the disadvantage is created the Cavs under Tyronn Lue have always been good at passing the ball around ’til the best option is found. I’m not persuaded, however, by their ability to design off-ball routes for players feeding off the post presence (which doesn’t have to be James at all times, either: Love is a good option, but hasn’t proven to score consistently when backing down smaller players and has been strongly denied a couple times by shorter opponents in this very game) now, because it’s about 9 months too late.
The lack of off-ball principles really hurts the Cavs, who virtually enact only Korver as a non-dribbling menace and are very predictable in doing so, as every secondary action is virtually shut off. Yet, as often as one anticipates the offensive strategy the consummate shooter only needs a glimmer of daylight, and “predictable” may be good enough.
LeBron, personally, hasn’t played well. The defensive strategy baffled him, but Boston played the same way with Simmons and Antetokounmpo. So many times he’s been caught mid-air or mid-penetration with no idea of what to do next, and so frequently actions to free him in favorable positions have taken too long to unfold, leading to the aforementioned shot-clock violations.
Those individual deficiencies will surely be redeemed. LeBron will be quicker, and prepare for an offensive action that doesn’t stop at “I beat my man”, but encompasses more complex plans. Tristan Thompson will be part of the action more often, as Love wasn’t ready to stop penetrations on switches to the perimeter anyway and most Celtics (Brown in primis) have a healthy habit of following up on their own shots if they suspect they weren’t accurate.
But that is pretty much all the Cavs can do, short-term fixes. The bigger picture is their lack of secondary actions and off-ball movement on offense is a problem, and when a man is beaten virtually nobody is in a position to help without leaving wide open shooters the defense hasn’t accounted for.
The Cavs haven’t accounted for a bit too many things that frequently happen in a high-stake game, for what it’s worth, and while they’re far from the only ones to indulge in this lack of detail their roster may not warrant a pass anymore. LeBron and oftentimes K-Love are great, but everybody else fits a gregarious bill.
That’s all I can think for now, but do not think this series is done.
Or that I am done ranting, for that matter.
(just kidding, I really want to be as zen as I can on rants, but listening to podcasts that literally expectorate opinions that everybody has because “if everybody thinks that it must be true or at least worth repeating” does not help.)