Despite the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 25-point loss in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Boston Celtics, their biggest problem is fixable and should regress to the mean in the coming games. It’s a make or miss league and the Cavaliers missed 22 of their 26 three-points attempts, most of which were relatively good looks that have gone down most of the year for a team that relies heavily upon the three-point shot to boost their offense. If Cleveland shoots a more normal percentage, especially in the first half, and everything changes—not only do the Cavaliers put up more points, but Boston is picking the ball out of the net more often and Cleveland is able to set their halfcourt defense with the correct matchups after makes. Boston scored a lot of points in early offense when the Cavaliers were mismatched or just not completely set in their defense, especially using an early ball screen to take advantage of the still-retreating big man.
One thing that will be hard to fix overnight is their halfcourt pick-and-roll defense. Overhauling the pick-and-roll scheme may be impossible by Tuesday’s Game 2, but certainly a healthy portion of their film sessions will be spent going over their communication and rotations in these situations.
Pick-and-pop gave the Cavaliers particular trouble, as it does for a lot of teams. In Boston’s starting unit, all five players can space the floor to the three-point line and take the ball to the basket if Cleveland is too earnest their closeouts. A 5-out system full of shooters and ball handlers can be very difficult to defend, but compounding that with communication mistakes and uncertain rotations was part of what built Boston’s huge lead in Game 1.
In the below clip, the Celtics go to one of their bread-and-butter plays: a Terry Rozier-Al Horford pick-and-pop, with the other three players spread across the floor:
Disregard the fact that Horford makes the shot—this is good defense and probably what head coach Tyronn Lue wants from his team on the Rozier-Horford pick-and-pops. Horford slips out of the ball screen, which causes J.R. Smith to stunt over from his spot on the left wing. Love recovers to a good spot but is slightly late with the contest, but otherwise played it fine. He had to ensure Rozier wasn’t going to turn the corner toward the rim before recovering out to Horford and a lightly-contested three-pointer from Horford is better than Love closing out too hard and letting his man blow by him toward the basket.
A more advanced scheme would require stronger communication and coaching, but it’s possible that the Cavaliers’ staff will procure a better way to defend this pick-and-pop action. This particular play occurred earlier in the shot clock, but once the clock gets under ten, it might be best for Smith to fully rotate over to Horford and let Love take Jayson Tatum, who cuts backdoor from his position on the left wing toward the basket. Boston is religious with these “stunt cuts”
, which Cleveland may be able to use against them at the right time. Tatum and his teammates have been drilled to always make that cut, which makes the Celtics at least somewhat predictable in pick-and-pop plays. However, because of the particular deficiencies of this Cleveland roster, they don’t want to rotate this heavily on early-clock pick-and-pops because of the mismatches it would create: Horford on Smith and Tatum (or any other wing) on Love would be disadvantageous for Cleveland in two places.
The Cavaliers could look into instituting a more complex defensive scheme, but just taking care of the low-hanging fruit would be a good first step. Boston had far too much success with basic pick-and-roll actions throughout the competitive portion of this game, a lot of which stemmed from poor communication from Cleveland’s side. Watch below how both Smith and Tristan Thompson guard Aron Baynes, leaving Jaylen Brown open in the corner:
Based on Smith’s fervent pointing, it seems Thompson is to blame; after trapping Tatum on the perimeter, he was supposed to recover out to Brown in the corner as Smith rotated over to tag Baynes on the roll. The communication here is difficult: LeBron James initially rotated over to tag Baynes, but when the ball flipped to Marcus Smart on the right wing, James recovered back to his man in the right corner and it was up to Smith to rotate down onto Baynes, as he was now the defender of the weak-side corner. Smith does his job, but Thompson either recovers to the wrong spot or Smith is deflecting the blame away from himself by yelling at Thompson.
While this communication could be cleaned up, the base problem with the Cavaliers’ defense is either a lack of good advance scouting or poor execution of the scouting report. James is defending Semi Ojeleye in the right corner—even if he’s one pass away from Smart, Ojeleye (a 32 percent three-point shooter on extremely low volume this season) does not need to be guarded as though he’s a strong shooter. In a perfect world, James would stick with Baynes until Thompson was able to recover and close out to Ojeleye in the corner if necessary, but giving up that jumper to Ojeleye should be considered a win for the Cavaliers.
Cleveland’s offense will garner the headlines after posting just 35 points in the first half and 83 for the game, but the offense was artificially deflated by a three-point shooting performance well below their average, both in shooting percentage and volume of shots from behind the arc. They’ve gone through games like this before and bounced back in the next game—they shot 8-for-34 from three in Game 1 against Indiana, then hit 11-for-28 in Game 2, a 15-percentage-point improvement from one game to the next. However, pick-and-roll defense is something that’s plagued the team all season (they finished 25th in overall pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy) and the Celtics were able to take advantage of miscommunications and poor execution from the Cavaliers in Game 1.