The 10 biggest questions for the Celtics-Cavaliers matchup

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 11: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics on February 11, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 11: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Boston Celtics on February 11, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images) /

There is no prelude necessary as we get ready for the Eastern Conference Finals rematch between the Celtics and Cavaliers. Here are 10 questions that will define the series and determine who gets to face the winner of Warriors-Rockets for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

How many rotation guys will the Celtics actually have?

Through the first couple rounds of the playoffs, Boston’s rotation has consisted of eight or nine players on any given night. With backup point guard Shane Larkin’s status in question thanks to a shoulder injury suffered in Game 4 of the 76ers series, it’s possible Brad Stevens could be rolling with a rotation of just seven: Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes.

Of note: two of those players (Smart and Brown) are still battling injuries. Also of note: the Cavs can essentially choose to play one of those guys (Baynes) out of the series with certain lineup choices.

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Given Cleveland’s roster construction, it seems likely that Stevens will dust off Semi Ojeleye for more time than he did last series. Ojeleye played a valuable role defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round — especially over the final three games of the series, which he started. Ojeleye got a bunch of floor time when Brown sat out Game 1 of the Philadelphia series with an injury, but played just 26 minutes over the final four games, including eight in the clincher after the Celtics lost Larkin. But with Smart shifting back to the bench to work behind and occasionally next to Rozier, Ojeleye almost has to see more time as a defensive stalwart on the wing. He also figures to factor pretty heavily into Boston’s plan against LeBron James, which we’ll touch more on below.

If Larkin returns at some point, that’ll lengthen the rotation a bit, and give Stevens more room to play around with the super-small lineups he likes to use to pressure opposing ball-handlers. If he does not return, it’s possible the Celtics could swing in the other direction by turning to Greg Monroe. That helped them immensely in the second quarter of their massive Game 2 comeback over the Sixers, but the only time Monroe saw during the rest of the series came in Boston’s double-digit Game 4 loss. Any time he does see figures to come when the Cavs have Tristan Thompson on the floor, so that he can’t be spaced out of the game by Kevin Love.

Speaking of the Cavs’ frontcourt choices…

Who starts at center for the Cavaliers? And how does Boston respond to that?

Despite Tristan Thompson’s massive performances in Game 7 against the Pacers and Game 1 against the Raptors, Ty Lue stuck with Kevin Love at center throughout Cleveland’s series sweep of the East’s No. 1 seed. That strategy was a smashing success as the Cavs blitzed Toronto to the tune of 121.5 points per 100 possessions, and an utterly absurd 126.3 points per 100 over the final three games of the series.

Moving into a series against Boston presents Lue with a tough choice. Do he stay with the lineup that got him here, with Love at center, or does he insert Thompson into the starting lineup, knowing how thoroughly he has dominated Al Horford in the past? It doesn’t help that it’s no longer a sure thing that putting Thompson on the floor means that the two will be matched up. In fact, it’s almost assured that they will not. If Cleveland starts big, Boston is likely to do the same. That means Thompson will lock horns with Aron Baynes rather than Horford, and Al isn’t as likely to be as much of a liability on the glass as he was during his time with the Hawks, or even during last year’s Conference Final matchup.

Things get a bit more interesting if Cleveland decides to stay small. How would Boston react to that? Does Stevens keep Baynes out there or does he match Baynes’ minutes with those of Thompson? If he does keep Baynes in the lineup, does Baynes guard Love? He almost has to. What does that mean for the rest of the matchups? Is Horford-on-LeBron a viable full-time strategy?

Downshifting along with Cleveland allows the Celtics to get a perimeter player out there to match up with LeBron, but that may play into Cleveland’s hands. It puts Horford back at center, for example, and Love can remove him from the paint with pick-and-pop action in order to let LeBron attack more open space.

What looks will the Celtics throw at LeBron? And who will LeBron guard on the other end?

Assuming that neither Terry Rozier nor Aron Baynes will spend much time — if any — defending LeBron James, the Celtics have six options among their rotation players from which to choose: Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Al Horford, and Semi Ojeleye. Who will see the lion’s share of the work guarding the world’s best player? It’s useful to look at how the Celtics matched up with him during the regular season.

Across three Celtics-Cavaliers matchups, nobody spent more time defending James than did Brown. He was followed closely by Morris, and then Ojeleye. Here’s how each of those six defenders fared against LeBron.

How will each of those matchups worked out depends on what you’re looking at. Cleveland had its worst offensive rating on the 10 possessions where James was defended by Horford. Their scoring output was similarly poor when Brown defended James, and over a far larger sample of possessions. James was extremely aggressive in both of those matchups, however, and he was even more aggressive when defended by Tatum and Smart.’s deterrence factor measures how often a player shot the ball, per possession, while defended by a certain player compared to how often he shot the ball, per possessions, overall.

By that measure, nobody did a better job on LeBron than Semi Ojeleye, who had a deterrence factor of 59.5 on the 39 possessions where he defended LeBron. (Basically, LeBron shot the ball only 60 percent as often when defended by Ojeleye as he did when defended by somebody else.) There were 58 players that defended LeBron on at least 30 possessions during the regular season; only five had a better deterrence factor than Ojeleye.

Do the Celtics want to deter LeBron from shooting and make the other guys beat them? If so, we might see a lot of Ojeleye, just like we did down the stretch of the Milwaukee series when he defended Giannis. Do the Celtics want to let LeBron get his one-on-one and not let anybody else get going? If so, it seems likely that LeBron will do much of his work against Brown and/or Morris.

Of course, the Celtics could throw a curveball at Cleveland and have Horford defend LeBron, much as he defended Ben Simmons last round. LeBron obviously presents far different and far greater challenges, but if the Celtics want to stay big while Cleveland goes small, that seems like a matchup we’re going to see a whole lot of.

On the other end, who LeBron defends is going to be a big clue to how Cleveland wants to play. The Cavs rarely like to have LeBron defend the opposing team’s top scoring option — even in the playoffs. He did so less often than any other wing All-Star this season, per research from Krishna Narsu and myself. That strategy is borne out in the matchup data from Cleveland’s games against the Celtics this season. LeBron guarded Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum on just 30 total possessions during the teams’ three matchups, about one-third the amount of time he spent defending Brown.

Definitively slotting LeBron on Brown, though, likely requires a belief that the Cavs will go big. Otherwise, Kyle Korver or J.R. Smith will have to defend whichever Boston big man Love doesn’t (i.e. Horford or Baynes) and the other will have to defend Tatum. Having Smith on Tatum seems likely, but slotting Korver onto Horford is a non-starter and putting him on Baynes would be to invite Boston to run him through a million pick-and-rolls where he has to defend ball-handlers like Rozier or Tatum. The move that makes the most sense is having James guard Horford, just as he guarded Draymond Green in the 2016 Finals. But more on that in a minute.

Can J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver play Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to a draw or better?

Working through the matchups, it seems like this is the area where there is the most potential for the Celtics to exert control on the series. Sure, Smith and Korver have a ton more experience than Brown and Tatum, but the young guys just seem like the better, more well-rounded players at this point.

That said, there have been times this postseason where Korver has looked like Cleveland’s second-best player. He has mind-meld chemistry with LeBron on the break and in the half-court, and especially when the two of them screen for each other on or off the ball. Smith has similar chemistry with LeBron, but obviously runs more hot and cold with his shooting.

Cleveland’s wing duo is likely going to be counted on to put in a lot of work against Boston’s rising stars on the perimeter, and how they fare on a game-to-game basis could end up being a bell-weather for the series itself. The Sixers’ inability to find any answers for Tatum doomed them in the last series. It seems like things are setting up for him to have another big run here, but you never know when J.R. Smith is gonna show up and play defense. He’s done it before.

On the other end, if Korver and Smith get hot, that could pretty much negate anything Boston wants to do defensively. Cleveland’s offense is just a different animal when those guys get going and you can’t just devote all your attention to LeBron and Love. Brown and Tatum will have to be on high alert at all times to make sure the snipers don’t get a free look.

Relatedly, what can Cleveland get out of the “We got a f***ing squad now” guys?

Remember that first game after the Cavs made their series of trades and everyone was all hype about Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Larry Nance? Yeah, that’s over.

Clarkson is barfing up horrible shots at a horrifying rate, shooting 31 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3. He’s also dished 12 assists against 10 turnovers in 11 playoff games. That’s disgusting. Hood has essentially disappeared, doing less than nothing when he’s on the floor. His most recent contribution to the team is refusing to enter the game during a blowout. So, that’s nice. And Nance is out of the rotation entirely. He played eight minutes against Toronto, all at the tail end of the two blowouts.

Can the Cavs get anything out of these guys in this round? Do they actually need anything from them in order to win? They swept Toronto while getting next to no contributions from this crew, but Toronto’s defense is not nearly as good as Boston’s.

Without Larkin to give them a breather, can Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart keep the pressure on George Hill for all 48 minutes?

A staple of Boston’s defense this season has been the relentless pressure applied by the non-Kyrie Irving members of their backcourt. Krishna and I dug into this when highlighting Larkin early in the playoffs, and, amazingly, his absence in this series could prove vital. The five-to-10 minute bursts of pressure Stevens uses him for not only spell Rozier but also help the Celtics force a ton of turnovers, which allows them to get out on the break — a key because of the relative weakness of their halfcourt offense.

With those Larkin minutes gone, it’s going to fall on Rozier and Smart to keep the pressure up for all 48 minutes. They have the capability, and it will be interesting to see how Hill deals with it if they do pick him up high on the floor. He’s got some off-dribble capabilities but they’re more of the “come around a pick and get into the paint by taking the correct angle” type, rather than creative ball-handling to evade full-court pressure.

Of course, the Cavs could adjust by just having LeBron bring the ball up the floor and then get a screen from Hill, which sets up the potential for Rozier guarding LeBron off a switch. Expect the Celtics to have a counter ready for that maneuver, though. They always do.

Next: No, Brad Stevens is not the coaching messiah

Can the Cavs handle the Al Horford pick-and-pops that killed the 76ers?

Boston made a bet that Joel Embiid could not corral a ball-handler, get back out to the perimeter to contest an Al Horford jumper, and then contain Horford if he decided to drive. For the most part, that bet worked out for them. Horford wore Embiid out on that end of the floor for much of the series, and the Sixers couldn’t overcome all the kinds of things Horford was doing to pierce their defense from all over the floor.

How do the Cavs want to handle these similar actions? If they stay small, Love seems like the most likely defender to be on Horford. (This is the scenario where Smith or Korver — or maybe LeBron? — guards Baynes.) Asking him to change directions three times in quick succession seems like maybe not the best strategy. If the Cavs go back, they could use Tristan Thompson against Horford. That’s a much better strategy, but Horford also pulls Thompson out of the paint and negates some of his defensive usefulness.

The best tactical bet to deal with Horford likely involves using LeBron on him, but that may just be too taxing for the King, considering the offensive burden he’ll have to carry in this series. For what it’s worth, the job was split almost entirely between Thompson and Love during the three regular season matchups. But the composition of both teams is very different now, and that may lead to some wonkier matchups.

Does homecourt matter at all?