Not so long ago the Celtics’ defense was the envy of every other team in the league. They were tough, disciplined, and always in-your-grill competitive. Indeed, their specialty was shutting down their opponent’s best scorer. Remember how thoroughly they stifled Kobe Bryant in the 2008 Finals?
It was natural to expect that Boston would concoct some scheme to deal with LeBron James in Cleveland on Sunday. But, alas, how the mighty have fallen. Not only did LBJ exploit them for 30 points on 9-for-19 shooting, but Boston’s defense against him was disjointed, soft and decidedly nonenergetic.
For the most part, the Celtics had Paul Pierce playing opposite LeBron. Occasionally, Pierce would put his body on James to try to limit his options. But the most elementary crossover dribbles easily left PP in the dust. On one third-quarter play, LeBron’s jab step faked Pierce to the floor.
Even worse, the baseline rotations that should have converged on LeBron a step above the charge-block arc were usually non-existent or late to arrive.
The result was layup-city for LBJ.
On high screen/rolls the Celtics often tried double-teaming LeBron. Trouble was, their efforts were extremely casual and never attempted to clamp him.
The same faulty rotations behind this tactic enabled James to drop a total of seven easy assists on various teammates who had either cut sharply to the rim or sashayed into unguarded spots on the perimeter.
It was absolutely astounding to note that while all of Pierce’s on-court teammates were seriously eyeballing LBJ every time he touched the ball, none of them bothered to do much else. The sheer lack of intensity on the part of the Celtics was another surprise.
The only effective maneuver that Boston accomplished was to go under high screens and let LBJ shoot his jumpers. This worked to the extent that James was only 2-for-12 on mid- to long-range springers.
But they never could keep him out of the paint. Hence his 16 free-throw attempts.
For a few minutes, Marquis Daniels took a turn in defense of James. The result was a travesty, with LBJ using his 2-inch and over 60-pound weight advantages to simply power his way to the rim as though Daniels was made of straw.
The same consequences resulted when the even smaller (by 5 inches) and lighter (by at least 90 pounds) Rajon Rondo switched on several high screen/rolls and faced this same impossible task.
One sure-fire way to slow down a point- and assist-making monster like LeBron is to relentlessly attack him at the other end of the court. Run him into perpetual screens, put whomever he’s guarding into iso situations and drive the ball right at him. The idea being to wear him out and hopefully to get him into some early foul trouble. However, Pierce didn’t go at LeBron until the first quarter was just about halfway over — and PP’s subsequent jumper banged against the side of the backboard. In other iso sequences, LeBron blocked one of Pierce’s shots, forced him into overpowering defensive help that caused a turnover and frequently was able to render PP moveless.
All told, Rondo tallied a quick-stepping layup in a direct confrontation with James that was created when the Cavs were forced to switch on a high screen/roll. And Pierce managed to drop a pull-up jumper along with a pair of meaningless late-game treys when being shadowed by LeBron.
Meanwhile, Mo Williams (14 points), Antawn Jamison (15), Anderson Varejao (17) and J. J. Hickson (12) were similarly unimpeded by the ghost of Boston’s defense.
What does this all mean?
Even if the Celtics survive the initial round of the playoffs — where they could conceivably face off against either Atlanta, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Miami or Toronto — they’d be fortunate to extend the Cavs to five games in Round 2.
Some critics claim that the Celtics are old, others that the players are bored. While it’s true that Father Time is undefeated, letting James Posey and Leon Rowe escape were serious blunders. (Plus, given a chance to play, Bill Walker has been dynamic with the Knicks). Furthermore, importing the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels and Michael Finley have done nothing to stop Boston’s fall from grace.
Even though Boston is still an above-average ballclub, the franchise’s latest “dynasty” had all the durability of lit flash paper. And if seriously competing for a championship is the team’s goal, then it’s time to back up the truck and accept that a major overhaul is in order.
If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and he may respond in a future column.