CLEVELAND — The shot was absurd, even by LeBron James‘ standards.
A step-back, fadeaway, late-clock 3-pointer with one of the league’s best defenders draped all over him. And video of the first-quarter make spread rapidly Tuesday on social media as sort of a “Look at what LeBron is doing!” snapshot of his 21-point first-quarter barrage in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.
LeBron James is heavily guarded by Marcus Smart but still knocks down a fadeaway 3-pointer.
Here’s the thing: The Boston Celtics liked that possession an awful lot, too. They liked how Marcus Morris made James work just to navigate from the blocks to the 3-point arc in order to set an initial screen. Or how Marcus Smart, who switched onto James, prevented the Cleveland Cavaliers star first from rolling to the basket, then denied James’ initial attempt to back Smart down.
Yes, James eventually got the ball back and made a ridiculous shot, but the Celtics made him work hard for a low-percentage look. And therein lies one of the secrets to Boston’s success through the first two games of the series: making everything hard for James.
“If you can, watch every possession. We have a bunch of guys coming out that give everything we got every possession,” Morris told ESPN. “LeBron is great, we all know that. That’s something that everyone knows. So, at the end of the day, we can’t hang our heads on shots that he makes. We know he’s going to take those shots, we know he’s going to make some shots.
“At the end of the day, we control the controllable.”
What the Celtics have controlled is their turnovers, which has eliminated easy transition opportunities. They’ve controlled access to the paint, limiting the chances for James to drive and create for either himself or his teammates. And the Celtics have controlled the intensity, dispatching a never-ending stream of versatile defenders, essentially tasking every player in their rotation with defending James at some point.
The other thing the Celtics control: the series (2-0). Yes, Boston knows it cannot relent in its defensive tenacity as the series shifts to Cleveland for Saturday’s Game 3 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). But an already irrationally confident group took a James haymaker in Game 2 (42 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) and still won by technical knockout.
“LeBron came out and did everything he could, and [the Cavaliers] see that, and they still came up short,” Smart said. “That’s the feeling going back home. It kind of puts you in a mood that you don’t want to be in. We’ve got a lot of momentum, and we’re going to try to use it and ride it.”
Rachel Nichols is impressed with Boston’s ability to wear down Cleveland and defend home court.
When James hauled in a fourth-quarter rebound with Cleveland looking to make a charge, Greg Monroe and Semi Ojeleye were practically sprinting before James could even put the ball on the ground. If there is one single area that the Celtics identified where they would have to be great during this series, it was eliminating transition opportunities.
So Monroe and Ojeleye raced back to the 3-point arc and stretched out their arms in hopes it would deter a charging James from attacking the paint. It worked, and James instead sprinted down the right side, where he was met by Ojeleye’s stout frame near the blocks.
During Boston’s first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Celtics tasked Ojeleye with helping to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo, even elevating him to a starting role late in the series Boston ground out in seven games. Ojeleye doesn’t have a typical rookie body; he’s built more like a brick wall. And when James met resistance trying to drive, he settled for another fadeaway jumper.
Unlike in the first quarter, this one clanged hard off the rim. The sequence highlighted three areas the Celtics have excelled at early in this series:
Eliminating transition opportunities: Coach Brad Stevens has joked before that he’d rather his players drop-kick the basketball five rows deep into the stands than commit a live-ball turnover with James on the floor.
Boston ranked in the middle of the NBA pack with a turnover percentage of 14.2 during the regular season, but in the playoffs, that’s dipped to 12.2 percent. More noteworthy, in the two games against the Cavaliers, it’s an impossibly low 8.9 percent.
The NBA posted a clip of Stevens talking in the Celtics’ locker room during this series in which he made specific reference to watching film of the Cavaliers being limited in transition (presumably, he was referencing Boston’s Game 1 effort).
“The other day was the best transition-defense game against the Cavs I’ve seen played,” Stevens told his players. “We need to have that mindset.”
In Game 2, James didn’t generate a single transition field goal attempt and turned the ball over twice trying to break out. It might have been an even better effort than what Boston did in Game 1.
The Cavaliers have scored 16 total fast-break points this series. That is after averaging 12.5 fast-break points per game during the regular season, 13th-best in the NBA. Not surprisingly, Cleveland players have spent the past three off days talking about a need to crank the pace.
Limiting James’ drive (and kick) opportunities: By loading up in front of James and deterring his drives, the Celtics haven’t just limited his own scoring at the rim — they’ve limited the ability for Cleveland’s supporting cast to hurt them with open perimeter looks.
James has had 17 direct drives in the series, but he has not had a single pass out of those drives, according to Second Spectrum data. He’s taken 15 field goal attempts and drawn two shooting fouls, but he hasn’t been able to spray the ball to teammates for those open 3-point looks that can really sting.
James has gotten little support from his teammates, particularly when he’s not creating for them. In Game 2, the Cavaliers were 28-of-45 shooting (62.2 percent) on James’ shots or shots created off his passing. On all other attempts, the Cavaliers were 9-of- 35 (25.7 percent).
Dig deeper and you will find that when Cavaliers not named LeBron dribbled more than three times before their shots in Game 2, they connected on just 2 of 10 attempts for four points (James was 13-of-21 for 31 points), according to Second Spectrum data.
“We’re making Bron play hero ball, which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference finals,” JR Smith said. “We got to help him. With that said, we have to give him an opportunity to make him feel confident to give us the ball so we can make the right plays. We got to help him and he’s got to help us.”
Contested shots: The Celtics are more hellbent than ever on making sure every shot in this series is contested. Consider this: James made an uncontested layup a little more than a minute into Game 2. Every single one of his next 28 shots was contested.
In fact, the Cavaliers took just three open shots the entire second half of Game 2, and Boston contested 92 percent (36 of 39) of their second-half attempts overall. By comparison, the Celtics took 20 open shots to only 28 contested while rallying from behind in the second half.
The Celtics are simply playing harder, and the NBA’s hustle stats seem to confirm it. Boston holds edges in deflections (28-18), 50-50 balls (24-17) and boxouts (93-64) through two games. The Celtics have put such an emphasis on the little things that it’s allowed them to be able to overcome big nights from James.
After an embarrassing performance in Game 2, the Cavs must come together when they return home to avoid a disaster at the hands of the Celtics.
Morris put his neck out there by suggesting he was one of the best James defenders in the NBA before the start of the series. He’s backed up his talk on the floor.
Morris has been the primary James defender on 56 plays in this series. And he’s allowed only 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting. James hasn’t made a single 3-pointer against him. And he’s gravitating farther from the basket. James’ average field goal distance against Morris in Game 1 was 10.2 feet, but it spiked to 16.5 feet in Game 2.
Morris was asked about his mindset while James was going off during the first quarter of Game 2.
“What was my mindset?” Morris asked before taking a moment to ponder the question.
“Cool,” Morris said. “I was very, very, very, very, very happy with the defense we were playing on him. They weren’t getting easy layups, they were fading from 3 — fadeaways. Like I said, he’s a great player, but we have to live with those shots. It’s the easy ones we have to take away.”
Morris has given the Celtics a real jolt this series with his intensity. Not only with the way he’s embraced defending James but also the brashness he’s brought at both ends, like when he screamed directly in Tristan Thompson‘s face after an and-1 layup in the third quarter of Game 2.
Marcus Morris drives for a tough layup and a foul, then proceeds to yell in Tristan Thompson’s face.
“It’s funny, the passion that he plays with, you want that from your guys,” Smart said. “I’ll take that any day out of a guy — him giving it everything that he has, leaving it all out on the court — [rather] than somebody who’s out there trying to be pretty boy or Cinderella, whatever you want to call it, prima donna, just chilling.
“I want somebody who’s going to go to war for me just like I’m going to go to war for him.”