What adjustments are left for the Celtics to make?


The extent of his brilliance has become the subject of great debate in recent weeks, but there is no denying that Brad Stevens has proven himself one of the NBA’s top coaches since taking over the Boston Celtics five years ago. He gets the most out of his players. His teams give 100 percent on every possession on both ends of the floor. His after timeout plays are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. And of course, he is great at making adjustments, whether between games or on the fly.

With just a day between games it may have been unreasonable to expect much of Boston’s strategy to change in the wake of their blowout loss in Game 3, but it was surprising to see the Celtics come out with not just the same starting lineup, but largely the same strategy in Game 4. Now that the series is knotted at two games apiece, we are almost sure to see some shift in tactics from the home team.

Below, we’ll walk through some of the various options Stevens can pursue to try to tip the odds back in Boston’s favor.

Lineup Adjustments

The way I see it, there are three different lineup changes Stevens can choose from:

  1. Start Aron Baynes in place of Marcus Morris.
  2. Start Marcus Smart in place of Marcus Morris.
  3. Start Semi Ojeleye in place of Marcus Morris.

With Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford locked into the starting lineup, that fifth spot is really the only place available for a change.

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The Celtics pivoted to Morris in the starting lineup for this series because their plan was to have him spend the majority of the game defending LeBron James. In Game 1, this worked splendidly. Morris was James’ primary defender on more than half of Cleveland’s offensive possessions, and LeBron went 1-of-10 from the field with five assists against four turnovers on those trips, which resulted in an offensive rating of just 89.7 for the Cavs, per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com.

The three subsequent games have seen James shred Morris’ coverage so badly that the Celtics actually went away from using him as the primary LeBron defender in Game 4, when Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye all saw more time on LeBron.

GamePossLBJ PtsAstTOCLE PtsCLE O-Rtg

If Morris isn’t the designated LeBron stopper, he probably doesn’t provide as much utility in the starting lineup as one of the three bench players Stevens is comfortable using in this series. (Even if Shane Larkin returns for Game 5, which seems unlikely based on Stevens’ comments on Tuesday, he’s not a candidate to start.)

The Baynes-Horford duo has not fared particularly well in the playoffs (minus-14 in 160 minutes), but it has been better in this series (plus-7 in 38 minutes). Baynes at least saves Horford from dealing with the Tristan Thompson matchup on one end of the floor, and should also help Boston clean up some of its issues on the glass. The Cavs grabbed the offensive rebound off their missed shot five percent more often during the two games in Cleveland than the first two games of the series in Boston. With Baynes helping Horford inside, the Celtics could mitigate some of that damage.

But sticking Baynes out there also presents some certain issues. It gives LeBron two targets for pick-and-roll switches rather than just one (Rozier). Because the Celtics want Baynes guarding Thompson—who will be guarding Horford on the other end—it complicates matching up in transition. And while Baynes has made more 3-pointers in this postseason than the rest of his career combined, he still is not respected as a shooter by Cleveland’s defense, which could cramp the spacing even more.

If Stevens wants to stay small despite the Cavs going big, he could pivot to either Smart or Ojeleye in Morris’ place. (This would also enable Morris to control more of the second-unit offense against players like Jeff Green and Kyle Korver, which presents a greater advantage for him than working against Love, even if they are both “better” defenders than him.) As mentioned, Smart and Ojeleye each put in more work against LeBron in Game 4 than Morris. Smart did the best job on LeBron individually and helped force him into four turnovers, but the Celtics themselves played their best defense with Brown or Ojeleye working on James.

PlayerPossLBJ PtsAstTOCLE PtsCLE O-Rtg

Smart makes more sense as a replacement starter (Ojeleye’s utility is basically just a big body to put on LeBron that isn’t Morris, while Smart brings other things to the table), but he’s also the primary backup point guard right now with Larkin out, so starting him brings its own lineup complications. Ojeleye’s numbers from Game 4 look good, but he actually looked terrible out there aside from the corner 3 he made and the Celtics were out-scored by 14 points in 9:27 he played. Neither option necessarily seems likely to swing the series, but changing things up and showing Cleveland a different look couldn’t necessarily hurt too much.

Speaking of changing things up…

Defensive Adjustments

Boston’s switches helped stifle the Cleveland offense during the first two games of the series. The kickout switch, in particular, saved the Celtics from potentially damaging post-up mismatches several times. They were not as tight with those switches in the Cleveland set, however, and the kickout came back to bite them in a big way in Game 4.

There are a few different options the Celtics can pursue here to change things up, and they all have their benefits and drawbacks. (Boston already started slotting Rozier onto J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver rather than George Hill, which forces the Cavs to use those guys in the two-man actions with LeBron.)

The first option is just to stop switching altogether, fighting through every screen and playing it all straight up. Doing so prevents situations where Rozier ends up defending James or Love within a few feet of the rim. Those post-ups trigger crisis help and rotations from Boston, and the Cavs have been anticipating those rotations and punishing them. It’s extremely difficult to play any switch-forcing LeBron pick-and-roll straight up, though. Go under the screen and he can pull up behind it and take a 3. Go over and he gets to attack downhill, drawing help from all over the floor. That’s why Boston’s been switching in the first place.

The switching can work when it’s perfectly executed, but if not, another strategy might be necessary. Any discussion of changing pick-and-roll defense that doesn’t mention trapping is falling short, but trapping LeBron with the ball in his hands seems incredibly dangerous. He will make the right pass every single time. It might be more workable on the possessions where Smith or Hill is the ball-handler and LeBron the screener, but even that risks LeBron slipping into open space and being left to negotiate a four-on-three situation. That might be even more dangerous than blitzing LeBron himself.

It’s here where I propose the first of two (slightly) more radical options: the Celtics could try to play zone. Executed properly, a zone defense forces Cleveland to pivot away from the pick-and-roll-to-set-up-a-post-up-off-a-switch offense and more toward one that emphasizes ball movement from the perimeter to the middle and back. The Cavs can zoom the ball around like that when they really have it going, but making them prove it before abandoning the idea of a zone entirely is an idea that has its merits. Of course, playing zone against a team whose strengths are offensive rebounding and 3-point shooting could lead to disaster. The Celtics have enough trouble keeping the Cavs off the offensive glass when they play their normal defense; taking strict matchups off the table could free Thompson and Love to really go to work. And of course, show LeBron the same zone for long enough and he will pick it apart, spraying the ball around to Love and Hill and Korver and Smith for one wide-open 3 after another.

The final available option is one the Celtics haven’t really gone to much in this series: they can take a page from their Sixers series playbook and use Horford on LeBron, just as they put him on Ben Simmons. Horford might be the best individual option to handle that matchup, but things get complicated when you start gaming out the matchups with the other guys on the floor. If Baynes starts, he has to guard Thompson, which means Tatum or Brown is guarding Love. Either way, that’s a matchup ripe for post-up fodder. If Smart or Ojeleye starts, that means both Thompson and Love have smalls on them. And no matter who starts, slotting Horford onto LeBron wouldn’t negate Cleveland having Rozier’s man screen for LeBron to force a switch.

As always, when you’re playing LeBron’s team, there are no “good” options.

Offensive Adjustments

Boston’s defense became an issue during the two games in Cleveland, but that was likely bound to happen at some point anyway. LeBron’s team will always figure out a way to score, eventually. Of more concern was the complete collapse of the Celtics offense. Boston ripped through the Cavs for 112.8 points per 100 possessions in the first two games of the series, per NBA.com, but that number plummeted to 96.6 points per 100 possessions during their two losses in Cleveland.

Thompson’s complete erasure of Horford from the series is the main culprit. Horford took just four shots in Game 3 and went 7-of-17 combined during the two games. Perhaps more concerning, he had just five combined assists. Boston’s offense is at its best when the ball is whirring around and they’re cycling through an endless series of dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls that all flow through Horford at the elbows. Thompson’s defense has neutered those actions.

How to fix it? Well, Horford could roll hard to the rim rather than slipping or popping out. That turns the team’s best playmaker into something of a decoy but it’s possible that the threat of him slicing through the paint could trigger the kind of crisis rotations from Cleveland that have been hurting the Celtics themselves. If those rotations could, it could be just what guys like Rozier, Brown, Tatum, and Smart need to get going from the perimeter. Horford could also hold his screens a beat longer and get real contact on the guys guarding Boston’s perimeter players, affording them cleaner driving lanes.

Of course, Rozier and Smart in particular need to be more aggressive in probing the paint. Rozier has scooted around screens for a couple quick layups in each of the last two games, but there’s no denying he has looked far more aggressive in home games during the playoffs. A return of that issue-forcing style could result in either free reign of the paint or help from Horford’s man, which would kickstart the whole cycle Boston wants to go into anyway.

Alternatively, the Celtics could try to run some of the 4-5 pick-and-rolls the Hawks used to some success with Horford and either Josh Smith or Paul Millsap. That would force Thompson and Love to defend pick-and-rolls together, and potentially put some other Cavs in uncomfortable situations as well. At the least, making Horford a ball-handler in some elbow-area screening action could unlock some of his playmaking abilities.

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But aside from getting Horford going, the Celtics could also do some matchup-hunting of their own. They’ve been trying to get Love into space every so often and whenever they’ve gotten Korver defending Brown in the post they have worked to get him the ball, but they could more aggressive attack each of those options in the event their half-court offense continues stalling out.

All of these options, though, assume Boston is playing in the half-court, when the biggest adjustment the Celtics can (and need to) make is ramping up the speed of the game and turning it into a track meet. Scoring is easiest before the defense is set, and that’s especially true when the opposing team is choking off the paint by slagging off non-shooters, darting under picks, staying attached to your best playmaker, and confronting your wings with multiple bodies between the starting point of their drives and the rim. Pushing the ball up the floor after makes and misses should be a point of emphasis, even if only because doing so will afford Boston more time to run through its half-court actions if they don’t get a shot early on. Committing to pushing at every opportunity can also generate some free points if the Cavs give into their tendency to loaf while getting back every so often. Getting easier baskets is probably the most important thing the Celtics can do to swing the results back in their favor.