The Celtics have the depth to defend LeBron James in ways the Pacers, Raptors couldn’t

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers is defended by Marcus Morris #13 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers is defended by Marcus Morris #13 of the Boston Celtics during the first quarter in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

After being reintroduced to the world as a “LeBron Stopper,” it would’ve been easy for Marcus Morris to take credit for how much LeBron James struggled in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. And yet, Morris deflected praise following their 25-point victory over the Cavaliers on Sunday afternoon, saying LeBron’s worst performance in the 2018 NBA Playoffs took a “team effort.”

“It’s not just me,” Morris said, according to ESPN. “Everybody played their part in guarding him. He’s obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game. I just think we did a great job of that.”

Morris was right. He defended James more than anyone else on the Celtics and was credited with limiting him to eight points on 3-for-10 shooting (as well as five assists on four turnovers), but Morris wouldn’t have had the individual success he did without the help of his teammates. The difference between the Celtics and the two other teams the Cavaliers have played against in these playoffs is their roster is littered with players who have the size to defend James, starting with Morris and extending to Semi Ojeleye, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. It gives James fewer opportunities to dictate matchups, and it showed in Game 1.

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When J.R. Smith sets a screen for James, for example, the Celtics are comfortable switching Tatum onto him. Tatum isn’t as strong as Morris, but he’s the same height (6-foot-8) and he has a slightly longer wingspan (6-foot-11). Throw in his athleticism, and Tatum can get into James’ airspace to make him uncomfortable on the perimeter.

The same goes for Smart and Brown, both of whom did well on limited possessions against James in Game 1. Whereas Brown has the size to defend James, Smart has the strength to keep the four-time MVP in front of him when James tries to overpower him.

Having multiple players who can defend James takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of Morris. It’s not a luxury the Raptors had in the previous round, as OG Anunoby was the only defender who had the physical tools needed to defend James. Even though Anunoby had little success defending James by the series’ end — James shot 8-for-19 against the Raptors rookie in Game 1 and then 21-for-36 in Games 2-4 — nobody else on the roster stood much of a chance when switched onto him, allowing James to manipulate matchups to his liking in the halfcourt.

Of greater concern for the Cavaliers is James wasn’t able to impose his will when he was faced with a mismatch in Game 1 against the Celtics, which, again, is a testament to how locked in Boston was as a unit on defense.

The only Celtic in the starting lineup at risk of being picked on consistently by James is Terry Rozier, who stands at 6-foot-2 and weighs 190-pounds. There was one particular possession in the third quarter where James got the matchup he was looking for by setting a screen on George Hill, who was being guarded by Rozier, at the top of the perimeter. As soon as Rozier switched onto him, James tried to take advantage by cutting to the basket and posting-up the Celtics guard:

Two things then happened. Knowing he wouldn’t have a chance of slowing James down when he received the ball near the basket, Rozier fronted James and used his length to make the only pass available to him a lob over two defenders:

Doing so gave Brown time to help off of Kyle Korver in the corner and double team James when he got the ball underneath the basket:

It was a risky decision by Brown to leave Korver in the corner, but he timed it perfectly and forced James’ fifth turnover of the game. As conservative as the Celtics were with their double teams in Game 1 — they were more likely to pre-switch to avoid having Rozier guard James or Kevin Love in the post — they were aggressive when they did.

Even so, the Cavaliers should try to exploit those matchups with greater frequently in Game 2. Not only did Rozier defend James on seven possessions in Game 1, Aron Baynes, who shared the court with James for a total of 15 minutes, defended him for one possession. It led to one of James’ easiest buckets of the game, as he blew past Baynes in isolation and scored an uncontested layup at the rim.

The Cavaliers even generated some good looks from the perimeter on the few possessions Rozier switched onto James. The Celtics can’t afford to leave Rozier on an island in those situations, meaning there’s an opening on the weakside that James has the vision to locate.

It’s one of the adjustments James and the Cavaliers will likely make going into Game 2. They suffered a similar loss in Game 1 of their first round series against the Pacers, only to bounce back in Game 2 behind 46 points, 12 rebounds and five assists from James. The Cavaliers also shot better from the 3-point line as a team, going from making 23.5 percent of their 3-point attempts in Game 1 to 39.3 percent in Game 2.

Considering they went 4-for-26 from 3-point range in Game 1 against the Celtics, they’ll need a repeat performance to tie the series up before returning to Cleveland.

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The Cavaliers need other players to step up, too. If the Celtics are going to continue switching across the board in an effort to slow James down, they need Love to attack mismatches in the post like he did against the Raptors. Love was able to early in the first quarter of Game 1 when the Celtics switched Morris onto him, but he was less of a factor as the game progressed.

While James wouldn’t have gotten this far without help from his teammates, the Pacers and Raptors didn’t have the depth to make his life as difficult as the Celtics did in Game 1.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from