2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Boston Celtics' defense keeps showing its pliability, might in 2018 playoffs

Switching, playing one-on-one fuels Celtics' No. 1 defense in Game 1 of East finals

* Tonight on ESPN: Cavs vs. Celtics, Game 2 (8:30 ET)

Most of the best defenses in the NBA switch screens liberally. In both conference finals series, who is guarding whom at the beginning of any possession doesn’t matter much, because screens will be set and defensive assignments will change on the fly, with the offense looking to get the opponent’s weakest defender switched onto one of their best players.

Defenses are generally willing to live with mismatches in order to stay in front of ball-handlers and avoid having to help with extra defenders. If you start rotating, the ball can move faster than your rotations and eventually find an open man. If you can stay out of rotation, you can stay at home on shooters and force the opponent to play one-on-one, either on the perimeter or in the post.

The Boston Celtics became the No. 1 defensive team in the league this season, largely because they added size at all three perimeter positions, enabling them to switch more often and more successfully. Even with their injuries, the Celtics have six very switchable defenders in their playoff rotation.

As Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said in the conference semifinals, “They got apples for apples on many, many different matchups.”

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, the Celtics were even willing to switch the 6-foot-1 Terry Rozier (not one of those aforementioned six switchable guys) onto LeBron James. On some possessions, they tried to switch out of that mismatch before the Cavs could take advantage. Here’s Al Horford trying to replace Rozier in the James matchup…

Celtics switch out of a switch

On others, they had to send a double-team…

Celtics double-team

The Cavs got some open shots out of that mismatch, but missed some of those open shots and maybe didn’t attack it enough.

And for the most part, the Celtics were able to keep James away from the basket, which is, obviously, priority No. 1 when playing the Cavs. James entered the conference finals having averaged 14.4 points per game on 77 percent shooting in the restricted area through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The 14.4 was tied with his 14.4 in last year’s playoffs for the most he’s averaged in the restricted area in any postseason (or regular season).

James’ jumper, meanwhile, has been erratic in these playoffs. He shot well from mid-range, but just 15-for-52 (29 percent) from 3-point range over the first two series. In only three of his 11 playoff games had he shot well from outside the paint. Against the Indiana Pacers in the first round, he was 9-for-14 from the outside in Game 2 and 8-for-14 in Game 7. In Game 2 in Toronto of the East semifinals (The Fadeaway Game), James shot 10-for-16 from outside the paint.

Though the Celtics outscored the Cavs 60-38 in the paint in Game 1, Boston had only three more shots in the restricted area (30) than Cleveland did (27). And the Cavs’ 27 restricted-area attempts were three more than they got in any game in the first round vs. Indiana.

But the Celtics’ 30 attempts were, on average, better looks than the Cavs’ 27. That was in part because the Cavs that defended the most shots at the rim were Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green, George Hill and Kyle Korver and in part because James only took five of the Cavs’ 27 restricted-area shots. He averaged about nine restricted-area attempts in the Indiana series and more than 10 against Toronto in the conference semifinals. Giving up just five in 36 minutes is a win (and resulted in a win) for Boston.

It’s also in line with what the Celtics did to the league’s two most LeBron-like players in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the first round, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 8.3 shots in the restricted area after averaging a league-high 9.3 in the regular season. And in the conference semis, the Sixers’ Ben Simmons averaged just 6.6 attempts in the restricted area after averaging 8.6 in the first round vs. Miami.

Maybe 22 shots in the restricted area from other Cavs is too much. But those shots (video) were often rushed and contested, with the exception of a few tip-ins and one clean roll to the basket from Tristan Thompson.

While the Celtics’ goal with James was to stay in front of him (and they were incredibly successful in doing that), they wanted to put pressure on the other Cavs. The point of the pressure was twofold. First, it was to make the Cavs uncomfortable in trying to run their offense, to push their actions away from the basket and deeper into the shot clock. Second, it was to force the other Cavs to put the ball on the floor.

“We speed ’em up,” Celtics forward Marcus Smart said after practice Monday. “When we pressure, it’s hard for them to get to their spots. It’s hard for them to get into their stuff. Then it just causes a rushed shots that they’re probably not used to taking.”

Really, now that Kyrie Irving is on their side, there isn’t a Cavalier not named James for the Celtics to be afraid of off the dribble. Here’s Aron Baynes willing to jump out high on Rodney Hood after a hand-off…

Baynes pressure defense

Baynes stuck with Hood and contested his shot at the basket.

There was more of the same from almost every Boston defender. In addition to their switchability, the Celtics were the league’s No. 1 defense because, whether they switched or not, they were able to stay in front of opposing ball-handlers as well as any team in the league.

The Cavs should get a much more aggressive James in Game 2 tonight (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). They’ll surely try to attack the Rozier mismatch more than they did in Game 1, and they’ll likely make more of the open shots that that mismatch produces. But other than James or Kevin Love vs. Rozier, there’s not much for the Cavs to take advantage of in this series.

If the Celtics can continue to keep James away from the basket and force his teammates to put the ball on the floor, they’ll continue to look like the best defense in the league.

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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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