Four Questions that Will Determine the Conference Finals
- How will the Celtics defend LeBron James?
This is the central question that any coach who has faced LeBron James over his decade-plus long run as the league’s best player has had to deal with, and James’ increased mastery of the game over the past few seasons has made it only more difficult to answer.
Brad Stevens has solidified his reputation as the league’s best coach during Boston’s impressive postseason run without their presumed two best players, but handling LeBron will be by far his toughest assignment yet. However, the Celtics roster is as well equipped as any other in the league to throw a number of bodies and a number of looks at James in order to disrupt his rhythm.
The vital question to answer is whether to guard LeBron one-on-one, as Toronto did to no avail in the Cavaliers’ second-round sweep, or to double team him and let him pick you apart with his passing to Cleveland’s assortment of three-point shooters. This is the NBA’s ultimate example of pick your poison, and no team has managed to solve this puzzle.
The conventional wisdom, at least recently, has been to guard James with a single defender and live with him scoring over 30 points per game. James is the best player on the planet, and he will get his regardless of what looks you throw at him. At the very least, you want to remove the possibility of some of his teammates getting hot, and make James carry his team to victory single-handedly. However, as the first 11 games of this postseason have demonstrated, LeBron is more than capable of doing just that.
Taking a look back at Boston’s first two series, it seems as if they have been as close to prepared for James as possible in the Eastern Conference. Although nowhere near James’ overall dominance, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons are probably the closest thing to him in the East, and Stevens put on a masterclass in how to slow down the physically dominant stars who struggle with their outside shot. For the most part, Stevens stuck his best perimeter defenders (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart) on the surrounding shooters in an attempt to limit three point attempts and to not allow role players who shoot themselves into a rhythm.
Al Horford, basketball’s version of a Swiss army knife, handled the bulk of the time guarding Simmons and the Greek Freak. Horford usually stood at the free throw line and dared those guys to shoot from the perimeter, similarly to the way San Antonio has guarded James over the years. This time around, that strategy may not work so well. Not only has LeBron eschewed some of those perimeter isolations for post-up possessions, but he has shown an increased comfort and efficiency in shooting from the outside. While Horford may open the series checking James, Boston’s personnel allows them to try different wrinkles over the course of the series.
Marcus Morris has expressed confidence in his ability to slow down the King, and the numbers back that up. During his last 11 games against Morris’ teams, James averages just over 21 points per game and has never topped the 30-point threshold. Moreover, two seasons ago Morris was the league’s best ‘LeBron stopper’, holding the Cavaliers forward to only 20.5 points per 100 possessions.
Jaylen Brown is among the league’s most promising young wing defenders, but Stevens has preferred to stick him on spot-up shooters so far this postseason in an attempt to erase their effectiveness. If Brown can slow down Kyle Korver or JR Smith, he makes James’ job that much harder. Marcus Smart plays in the mold of Lance Stephenson, a bigger guard who would like nothing more than to get into LeBron’s head. Semi Ojeleye, who has seen limited minutes thus far, has the ideal physique to battle with LeBron down low. Although all of these guys are likely to take a stab at LeBron, Stevens must also be willing to send double teams when LeBron catches fire, which will inevitably happen multiple times throughout the series. Dwane Casey refused to change his strategy even as LeBron hit turnaround after turnaround in the second round, humiliating Casey’s team and ultimately costing him his job. Stevens has shown an impressive ability to maximize his team’s potential on both sides of the ball, and he will be ready to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the King in the conference finals.
Still, LeBron has played like a man possessed for most of the playoffs, and when he is on his game, no one can even hope to contain him. The key for Boston is going to be to stick to Smith, Korver, and Kevin Love, mix up their coverages against LeBron and then hope that he comes back down to earth and misses a few shots. If that happens, Boston has a puncher’s chance. If not, this series may be a repeat of last year’s.
2) Who among the Cavaliers’ ‘others’ will step up?
The difference between Cleveland’s seven-game slog against Indiana and their blow-the-doors-off sweep versus Toronto was the play of the guys on the roster not named LeBron James.
Kevin Love averaged just 11.4 points in the first series before stepping up his game and putting 20.5 a night against Toronto. Kyle Korver jumped from 8.3 points to 14.5 from round to round, and JR Smith improved from 8.6 to 12.5 point per outing.
If they are able to repeat their exploits from the conference semifinals, Cleveland should be the heavy favorites against Boston. However, unlike against a upstart Pacers squad, a one-man wrecking crew may not be enough to overcome this overachieving Celtics group.
Love is the most important piece. His combination of outside shooting and interior touch (which he demonstrated consistently for the first time in a long time against the Raptors) makes him a difficult matchup for anyone. If Cleveland plays him at the five, Aron Baynes will likely to relegated to a bench role and only see minutes when Tristan Thompson is on the court. Al Horford is a solid antidote to Love, but his defense might be needed to slow down James, meaning Love can exploit whichever smaller defender Brad Stevens put on him. If Love does this, he opens up even more opportunities for Cleveland outside threats.
Korver, Smith, George Hill, or whichever wing Ty Lue chooses to play are going to be the more crucial components in this series. If Stevens and his bevy of wing defenders can limit these guys’ open shots, it will greatly impact the series. A combination of Smart, Brown, and Terry Rozier are more than capable of completing that goal.
Just like Boston’s ultimate goal will be to make LeBron–and only LeBron–beat them, Cleveland will look to replicate the team-wide success from the series against Toronto. A lot of that will depend on a very simple question: whether or not the Cavaliers’ supporting cast can hit shots.
Outside of that, Lue may need to play more guys that can create their own shots and aren’t quite as dependent on James to do so for them. Jeff Green has been a surprising contributor over the course of the season and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood were picked up to give that kind of boost off the bench, although they have so far been unable to adequately perform that role.
None of the Cavaliers’ role players can be reliably counted on the produce what is needed of them. Instead, they need to take turns of assisting James and Love with production. Cleveland has had two series thus far in which the performance of their ‘others’ could scarcely have been more different. If they perform as they did in the second series, Cleveland should knock out Boston with relative ease; if not, this series could shock a lot of people.
3) Can Clint Capela successfully switch onto the Warriors perimeter players?
Although Houston’s potent offense and a large talent gap with their opponents have continued to propel their success thus far in the postseason, the spectacular play of Clint Capela on both sides of the ball has been the key to their dominance through 10 games in the playoffs.
Capela has always been a serviceable player in the Rockets’ rotation, as he can catch lobs, grab rebounds, and protect the effectively. However, where he has been most useful of late is in his ability to switch onto opponents perimeter players and therefore unleash so much of what makes Houston so improved defensively.
James Harden is at his best when playing defense in the low-post and Mike D’Antoni switch everything defense allows him to be in that predicament essentially every time that the opponents runs a pick-and-roll. Most teams have plodding centers who make this game plan nearly impossible to execute, but Capela has so far stifled Jeff Teague and Donovan Mitchell enough to make the scheme worth it.
However, Mitchell and Teague are no Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Capela can expect that Steve Kerr will put those two supreme scorers in a number of pick-and-rolls in hopes to take advantage of Houston’s defensive approach. Capela has an ability to be a game changer in this series with his shot-blocking ability and his rim running on offense, which can ease some pressure on Chris Paul and James Harden. However, if Capela is consistently exposed by Curry or Durant, his spot on the court may be untenable. Houston may try to counter this by playing a smaller lineup with PJ Tucker, Luc Richard Mbah Moute, and Trevor Ariza, three long and versatile forwards in the frontcourt, which is possible because Golden State’ four traditional centers are offensive non-factors.
That choice could open up a whole new can of worms for Houston, because it allows Golden State to comfortably play their ‘Hampton Five’ with Draymond Green at center. Therefore, Capela’s ability to defend on the outside and not sacrifice his other abilities, will be of the utmost importance for Houston. Capela’s presence on the court can give them at least a minor advantage over the Warriors’ death lineup.
Unlike against every other team in the league, Houston is inferior talent wise when matched up against Golden State. Therefore, they have to be able to capitalize on any minor advantage that they have. In this series, that includes maximizing on Capela’s ability and hoping that he can be a defensive disruptor and an offensive weapon that the Warriors cannot match. Thus far, Capela has performed his role admirably, but it gets that much harder against a team that can hurt you in so many ways. Capela is the key to this series, and the key to his individual performance might be found in the answer to our fourth question.
4) How healthy is Steph Curry?
Although Curry’s numbers since returning from a sprained MCL are pretty much on par with his normal production on a per-36 minute basis, the eye test tells a slightly different story. Curry, despite his shot looking as nice as usual, has struggled with creating separation and moving quickly laterally to guard opposing players.
In 2015-16, Curry’s numbers throughout the postseason would equally impressive, but he was clearly gimpy and his inability to create space against bigs like Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson made the end of the Warriors historic season a historic disappointment. Of course, some guy named Kevin Durant has joined the fray since then and alleviates some of the pressure of Curry to create for himself.
Although Curry has had a nice week-long layoff since the Warriors knocked out the Pelicans in five games, it remains to be seen if he has returned to full strength. Even with Curry at 85%, Golden State will be favored to win this series, but a suboptimal Curry does open up more options for Houston on both sides of the ball.
On defense, the Rockets will benefit greatly from being able to use Capela to slow down Curry, and therefore not have to adjust too much of their defensive schemes from the rest of the season. Furthermore, a Curry who cannot switch direction as quickly as usual will also allow Mike D’Antoni’s team to pressure him and force him into making quick decisions, and hopefully keep the ball out of his hands.
Offensively, Houston will want to attack Curry, who acknowledged earlier this week that it is harder to get back up to speed on defense because he is not fully in control of his body’s movements. Harden or Paul will look to exploit this advantage, and if Curry is not at full health, Steve Kerr might look to hide him on Tucker or Mbah Moute, both of whom are rarely tasked with handling the ball or creating offense.
Much like Cleveland and Boston, this series will be one of give and take. Boston is going to have to give up something, whether it be LeBron in one-on-one situations or his teammates getting open looks. Cleveland will need to take advantage of whatever is given to them. Similarly, Houston will look to continue to switch everything on defense, and Curry’s health is of paramount importance if Golden State is going to exploit this scheme.
Golden State and Houston have hid so much of what they do best from one another during their regular season matchups, and for the Warriors to be able to add as many wrinkles to their offense as possible, Curry needs to be able to play his best basketball. The fate of this series is not entirely dependent on the point guard’s health, but Golden State will be able to rest far easier if they know that their co-star is ready to go.