Across both matchups in the Conference Finals of this year’s NBA Playoffs, hunting mismatches has become the topic du jour, with all four teams targeting their opponent’s weakest player and constantly involving them in the main action. In the West, Stephen Curry and James Harden are forced into unfavorable defensive situations on nearly every possession, while the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics are taking turns going after Terry Rozier and Kevin Love, respectively, with a few other players thrown in for good measure when those guys aren’t on the floor. Cleveland’s attacks against Rozier have ramped up as the series has progressed and really came to a head in Game 4, when they used at least four different offensive players in mismatches against the Celtics’ point guard in order to take advantage of the only minus defender in the Boston rotation.
It started early in Monday’s Game 4 and was constant throughout the game in a variety of different actions, but the end result was usually the same — Rozier matched up with a much larger opponent in the post, where that guy either had a big advantage or Boston put themselves in rotation to get Rozier out of the matchup, using a tactic called “scram”, where another player sprinted over and expelled Rozier back to the perimeter, usually as far away from the ball as possible. For the most part, this worked for Boston, though there were some key breakdowns and counters by Cleveland to make scramming Rozier out impossible.
It was clear from the beginning that Boston had a plan for scramming Rozier out of these post mismatches, even if it meant putting him in only a slightly better matchup. Early in the first quarter, Rozier was switched onto Love, but Marcus Morris came over and took Rozier’s spot, sending him to Tristan Thompson instead. Obviously, Rozier’s still at a disadvantage when guarding Thompson, but Love is a far more threatening post player than Thompson is.
When Rozier was switched onto Thompson directly, Boston didn’t even scram him out, opting to let Thompson work in the post if he was able to. Cleveland didn’t go to Thompson consistently (for good reason), but he was able to beat Rozier once or twice for buckets:
After the first few times Boston scrammed Rozier out, the Cavaliers started to pick up on where the open man was, to the point where they would use the post threat to get the scram started early before finding a shooter on the weak side:
In the above clip, Love sets an early drag screen for George Hill, forcing the switch between Rozier and Al Horford. As Love walks Rozier down to the block, Jayson Tatum is already anticipating the back-side switch and inches over toward the paint to get a jump on Love’s post-up. Hill sees this and fires a one-handed bullet to J.R. Smith in the left corner, who nails the three.
Scramming a smaller defender out of a post mismatch is a little easier than on the perimeter because of the time it takes for the post-up player to get set and the ball to be entered. Defenses can pressure the ball handler into making a slower pass, buying valuable tenths of a second for the scram to occur and the defense to set up the way they want. When the switch happens on the perimeter and the mismatch stays out there, it’s much more difficult to scram Rozier out, as the Celtics found out when LeBron James set the ball screen for Hill:
All in all, a turnaround jumper from 18 feet is a decent result for Boston, even though James has been on fire on those shots since the Toronto series. Unsurprisingly, James was a particularly tough matchup for Rozier. In the post, James was able to make any pass he wanted to open shooters as Rozier scrambled to closeout on them:
As shown in the third clip above, James was also getting the mismatch with Rozier out of his own pick-and-roll ball handling, avoiding the entry pass into the post altogether and further shortening the time Boston had to scram Rozier out. The results were as expected:
James didn’t go at Rozier as often as he might later in the series, especially if the Cavaliers find themselves in a closer game, but putting the Celtics’ smallest player in mismatches against the multitude of skilled Cleveland big men is going to be a theme throughout what remains of this series. Boston is adamant in their switching scheme, which works when Marcus Smart comes in for Rozier and they can put five like-sized players on the floor at the same time, but Rozier’s deficiencies defensively became a focal point for the Cavaliers’ attack and they’ll continue to pick at him until Boston comes up with a different strategy against them.
Overall, scramming Rozier out worked well when his matchup was Love, Thompson or Jeff Green, but as the series wears on, James is going to be the man with the ball more often and their scram tactics won’t work against him—he’s too good at getting to his spots before the other defender gets there and is too good a passer to leave a shooter briefly open before Rozier can get there, even if that open shooter is 25 feet away and will only have a split-second opening. Boston’s ability to stop the Cavaliers in this series will hinge on their ability to get Rozier out of these bad matchups, whether it means overhauling their pick-and-roll coverage whenever he’s involved in the main action or sticking with the scram and living with the results. Either way, Cleveland’s found an advantage and they’ll continue to push it in the remaining games of this series.