Late in their Game 3 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the Cleveland Cavaliers rolled out the same play on almost every possession: a LeBron James-Kyle Korver pick-and-pop targeting Toronto wing C.J. Miles, who doesn’t have a particularly strong defensive reputation. The Raptors needed Miles’ offense late in the fourth quarter and wanted to remain as mobile as possible, but he might as well have had an “ATTACK ME” sign stapled to his forehead, because that was the entirety of the Cleveland offense over the last several minutes of Saturday’s game.
Initially, Cleveland uses George Hill as the screener to bring Fred VanVleet into the play, which doesn’t produce a switch. VanVleet hedges hard on the screen, defends James for a brief second, then sprints back to his man. Meanwhile, OG Anunoby ducks under Hill’s screen and picks back up on James as soon as VanVleet scampers away. VanVleet ends up making the mistake of helping on James’ drive while Hill cut to the basket and giving up a layup, but the core tenets of not switching the original ball screen still stand.
This sort of defense makes sense against a James-shooter pick-and-pop, but Toronto decided to go a different route once Korver brought Miles into the action. On the next possession, Korver steps up to set the ball screen for James and the Raptors switch, removing their best defender from James and leaving their worst to contend with him one-on-one. Despite the turnover, Korver’s movement is good and had he caught the ball cleanly, he would have had relatively good look at a three-pointer:
The next time down the floor, there was no pass for Korver to drop, as James went right through Miles for the and-one:
The Raptors made the conscious choice that having Miles defend James was acceptably, because otherwise they could have had him do the same thing VanVleet did. Miles is just as capable of jamming James from driving initially and then getting back to his man, but whether it’s Miles size or Toronto’s fear of Korver, they decided to go with the switching scheme on those actions. Cleveland, never shy about exploiting a matchup, went back to the well three more times in the last two minutes:
Now that the Cavaliers are up 3-0 and the series is effectively over, Cleveland can start to look toward the next round: will this same action be a big part of their offense against the Boston Celtics? The Celtics are also up 3-0 in their series and will almost certainly advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics likely closing lineups will not feature a wing with the defensive weaknesses Miles possesses — it’s likely they’ll close with Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford, with Jaylen Brown getting minutes as well depending on his health and how coach Brad Stevens feels about his matchup with this Cleveland team.
Among those players, Rozier stands out as a place James could attack, but Stevens will have Rozier jumping out to briefly contest James before getting back to his man (likely to be Hill), just as VanVleet did in the above clips.
Despite this, the Cavaliers may still try to pick on Korver’s defender, using his immense gravity to either sow confusion and miscommunication in the defense. Korver’s ability to knock down shots throws a wrench in a lot of best-laid defensive plans, because even stunting to James before recovering back to Korver may yield a half-open three to one of the best shooters in the world. Switching eliminates that possibility and with multiple strong wing defenders on the floor, expect Boston to switch those screens and try to contain James in isolation with defenders far better than Miles.