Exploiting mismatches in the NBA is “not much of a secret” as LeBron James said following the Cavaliers’ 111-102 Game 4 win over the Boston Celtics on Monday night.
And even though the success of one particular mismatch may not be a secret to either team, it’s getting James plenty of easy looks.
For as good as Terry Rozier has been in these playoffs, averaging 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists, the Cavs have found a way to attack him in their pick-and-roll sets by forcing switches to benefit James, and to an extent, the other Cavs bigs.
So let’s break it down. The Cavs get this mismatch one of two pretty basic ways. The first option is to have James screen Rozier. In this play in the first quarter, James sets the screen for George Hill at the top of the key and hits a fadeaway over Rozier once he commits to the switch:
The second option is for whoever Rozier is guarding to screen James’ man and force a switch. Two instances of that happen here, in the second and third quarters. George Hill and J.R. Smith set James up perfectly in both of the following plays:
From there, the Cavs overload the opposite side of the floor, essentially eliminating any chance Boston has of scramming Rozier out of the matchup for fear of leaving a man open on the perimeter. James then just bullies his way into the paint for fairly easy looks.
As FTS’ Jeff Siegel wrote, the Cavs are also getting mismatches down low for Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love when it comes to targeting Rozier on switches; however, in these sets, unlike the ones specifically for James, the Celtics are able to more easily scram Rozier out of the post, even though breakdowns led to open looks for Cavs shooters.
Head coach Tyronn Lue, of course, doesn’t like to divulge any secrets when it comes to what is working for the Cavs on either end of the floor. After some back-and-forth during his postgame presser, however, Lue eventually gave a little insight into seeking out this matchup.
“We want to have the movement,” he acquiesced. “We want to try to take advantage of mismatches. Rozier is a tough fighter, tough competitor. But if you try to get switches, I guess he’s the one you want to try to go up with Kevin and Bron because the other four guys are the same size. They’re strong, they’re physical. So the way they play, you’ve got to try to take advantage of the mismatch because they don’t have a lot on the floor at the same time.
“To answer your question, we’ve got to just get to it and then we’ve got to make the right plays out of it.”
The Cavs know this is the obvious mismatch to target, because realistically, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown present more problems due to their size and athleticism when it comes to the Celtics’ starting five.
Hill did confirm the Cavs were trying to get the most out of the James-Rozier mismatch, and were going with it “until they stopped it.” But finding mismatches like this one is something that every team is looking for throughout the playoffs— it’s what got all four remaining teams to their respective conference finals series.
“Just watching and breaking down film, and seeing what’s the best possible chance for us to be successful versus their defense,” James said. “I think this league is all predicated on trying to find mismatches. That’s every team.
“I don’t think it’s much of a secret. You just try to execute once you get the mismatch or you feel like you have a position where you can be successful offensively, then you just try and execute and get a bucket. So we’ve been very successful our last two games of doing that, and Boston was very successful in our first two games of doing that.”
Boston is very much aware of James seeking out Rozier. Considering James has arguably the best court awareness in the league, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens knows that they are going to have to pick the lesser evil when it comes to trying to slow James down. Otherwise, the Celtics risk recovering late out to the perimeter, and James finding the open man.
“He’s going to go after whoever he wants to go after,” Stevens said. “I think one of the things that sometimes we all get consumed with is the points he scores on that switch. If it’s eight, but it keeps you from rotating and you can still guard the three-point line, then sometimes you just have to pick your poison.”