Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers

Has LeBron James figured out formula to defeat Celtics?

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LeBron James (Getty Images)

In the opening minutes of Game 3, LeBron James sent a message to the world that he was done messing around. After being fouled by Jaylen Brown on a cut to the basket, he inbounded the ball to Kevin Love on the wing and slowly made his way toward George Hill on the baseline. The two ended up meeting in the corner, where they exchanged screens and forced the Celtics into switching the taller Brown onto Hill and the smaller Terry Rozier onto James.

With a sizeable mismatch, James immediately took advantage by turning his back to the basket while everyone else spaced the floor for him. He didn't get very far on the back-down, but he didn't need to. James took three dribbles - each one being used as a decoy - and as soon as Brown committed to being the help defender underneath the basket, he launched a cross-court pass to Hill for a wide open 3-pointer in the opposite corner.

Hill knocked it down, and it set the tone for the rest of the game - and potentially the rest of the series.

The Celtics have the wing depth to match up with the Cavs in ways the Pacers and Raptors couldn't. It starts with Marcus Morris, and extends to Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Al Horford, each of whom have the size and athleticism to switch onto the 14-time All-Star without it being a complete disaster. Rozier, however, is not built like them. He's listed at 6-2 and 190 pounds, giving him almost no chance of staying in front of someone six inches taller and 60 pounds heavier than him. LeBron knows it, the Cavaliers know it and so do the Celtics.

Even though Rozier is logging 34.3 minutes per game in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers didn't target him much in Games 1 and 2, but they started to do it with greater frequency in Games 3 and 4. James would call for a screen from whomever Rozier was guarding and wait for the inevitable switch to happen before bulldozing his way to the basket for a layup. If the Celtics threw multiple defenders at him to take away those scoring opportunities, he'd beat them with the pass, much like he did at the start of Game 3.

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Sure Not Now

James was able to generate high-percentage shots for himself when he wasn't able to get all the way to the basket, too. Rozier's 6-8 wingspan is longer than most point guards, but it still isn't enough to contest LeBron's jump shot. It's why Rozer said after the game that all he can do against the four-time MVP is "hope he miss."

When it became obvious what the Cavs were doing in Game 4, the Celtics tried to prevent those costly switches from happening in a couple of ways. The first was by sending a fake double at LeBron - known as "scram defense" - as a way of getting a more capable defender switched onto him. The second was by having his defender fight through the screen rather than give the Cavaliers the mismatch they were looking for without any sort of resistance.

Both gave the Celtics a better chance of containing James, and yet pulling those off seamlessly requires them to all be on the same page. Otherwise, they run the risk of costly breakdowns.

It also opened the door for mismatches elsewhere, whether it was Rozier having to deal with Tristan Thompson on the offensive glass or Kevin Love in the post, where he is equally outmatched. The Cavaliers didn't even shy away from giving Thompson the ball when Rozier switched onto him on the low block, despite the fact that he was one of the worst post-up scorers in the NBA this season. Their game plan was to attack Rozier at every opportunity, regardless of whom he was defending.

The answer for the Celtics as they return to Boston for Game 5 isn't as simple as playing Rozier less, because he's been a huge reason for their success in these playoffs. He's leading the team in 3-pointers made and assists, and he's second to only Marcus Smart in steals.

It's resulted in the Celtics outscoring opponents by 2.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to being outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench in the postseason. Take him out of the lineup, and it puts even more pressure on Brown, Tatum, Smart and Horford to carry the Celtics on offense.

So what is the answer? That's what Brad Stevens and the Celtics have to figure out before Wednesday night's contest. Following back-to-back losses in Cleveland - one of which was decided by 30 points - it's clear something has to change.

It's just never an easy fix when it involves LeBron James.

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