The Boston Celtics need to make sure LeBron James cannot preserve any energy while on defense
The Boston Celtics‘ best chance of victory in the Eastern Conference Finals involves incorporating LeBron James in every play. Now it may seem counterproductive to tray and engage the best player in the world as frequently as possible, bu the Celtics best bet at limiting LeBron’s impact in the series is to tire him out.
During the late stages of their games against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics picked on a fatigued Joel Embiid. A winded Embiid was targeted in pick and rolls and forced to rotate on defense. The most notable instance of this was in Game 2, when Al Horford blew by an exhausted Embiid for a game clinching lay-up.
Now, tiring out Embiid and tiring out LeBron are two very different tasks. The approach, however, is similar. Constantly involving him on pick and rolls, and forcing him to chase after quicker players are the best methods to attack James on defense.
Another strategy is to avoid allowing James to cheat by guarding limited offensive players such as Aron Baynes. The counter to that would be to go small and roll-out offense-heavy units. If James is sitting on Baynes, it might be time to bring in someone who is going to be more active on the offensive end; whether that is Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, or even a bruising post-player like Greg Monroe.
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The reason attacking LeBron on defense is so critically important is that James has thrived this season on resting during games. LeBron has played an insane amount of minutes for a player in his 15th season, and the reason he can sustain playing at a high level is by conserving energy while he is still playing in the game.
Brian Windhorst wrote an article for ESPN earlier this week on how James has mastered resting while still playing. Windhorst noted that James’ rate of movement was among the slowest in the NBA. That does not mean LeBron isn’t fast, just that there are a lot of moments of walking or stationary, lazy defense throughout the game that offset those few moments of explosive athleticism.
Watch any Cavs game this season and the evidence is right there. LeBron’s defense has been criticized all season and he will obviously take offensive possessions off, even if his team has no real number 2 option to create in his absence.
From a Celtics perspective, they cannot allow James to rest on defense. If he is going to take plays off, the Celtics need to attack him and make him pay for his lethargic play.
The result will either be James is forced to play harder on defense, thus using more energy or he will concede points to Boston. It’s a fact that James to going to be pushing himself on offense, the Celtics have to do their best to make sure he is a giving a maximum effort on defense.
Although it may seem impossible, James can be worn down. In the 2014 NBA Finals, a superior Spurs team used their ball movement to wear James down and by the fourth quarter of those finals, James was unable to summon his typical exceptional level of performance. A similar scenario unfolded in the 2015 Finals.
The Celtics obviously are not as talented as that Spurs team or the Warrior teams that that toppled LeBron. However, the Cavs team LeBron captains is very flawed. While the sweep of Toronto may have thrown people off the scent, this is still a Cleveland team that stumbled through the regular season and was lucky to sneak past Indiana. Even with the best player in the world, Cleveland is far from a juggernaut.
LeBron is going to play extremely well in this series, but if the Celtics can fatigue James, he will not be as unstoppable in crunch time as he was against Toronto. That may be enough to swing a game or two in Boston’s favor.