Although Cleveland led most of the first half in Game 2 and looked like it had initially solved some of its offensive issues, the Celtics' defensive execution was almost flawless in the second and third quarters. Not only were they solid at the point of attack in containing LeBron James and Delonte West, but they were in complete synchronization with their off-the-ball rotations and backside coverage for helping or trapping defenders.
Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe were cat quick on their help commitments and their recovery back to their men, which decreased the time the Cavs had to catch them in midrotation. Cleveland just could not read or react quickly enough to the ever-changing defensive landscape.
This is where the major concern lies for the Cavaliers as they come home for Game 3. Cleveland doesn't need to overreact or overhaul its offense. Opportunities are there for the Cavs on the offensive end, but they have shown a glaring inability to take advantage in the first two games. It takes a smart offensive team to execute against the best defense in the NBA, and the Cavs are focusing in their film study of how to do just that.
The Cavaliers' best offensive sequences have come in a low stack set, with LeBron screening in the paint for Wally Szczerbiak, who curls off of the 4 or 5 man down screening off the midpost. James lets Szczerbiak clear, then follows off the same screen.
On three consecutive possessions in the first half, the Cavs got good action and three different scoring options. They got a jump shot from Zydrunas Ilgauskas when both defenders jumped out on James, a layup from James after he pass-faked Powe off of him and drove the middle, and a wide-open look for a 3-pointer for West when LeBron curled and drew help. West missed the shot, but the looks and reads are there.
James Posey and Paul Pierce will work hard to deny James the ball on the initial pass, which makes LeBron's ability to read their coverage essential. James has a tendency to just race out to the wing off the down screen without reading his defender. He has missed multiple opportunities to curl into the middle of the floor as Pierce or Posey got hung up trailing on the screen, and only once did he go backdoor in Game 2 -- catching a lob dunk.
By slowing down and reading his defender, LeBron will make things much easier for himself when he makes the catch. When James did curl in Game 2, the Celtics jumped him with the screener's defender -- usually Garnett, Perkins or Powe. Look for James to make a pass fake or shot fake to freeze that defender and then make his play.
With Boston paying so much attention to LeBron on that cut, Cleveland also missed multiple opportunities to hit the screener on a quick slip to the basket. Look for the Cavaliers to make that pass early in the game to keep the Celtics' big men home.
The Celtics, in their film study, will also see this as an area of vulnerability. Look for them to go under the screen (jump to the middle and go on the passer's side of the pick) and force James to fade toward the corner to receive the pass. These are shots the Celtics are happy to let him shoot.
Although James is 15-of-66 from the field and 1-of-16 from behind the arc in his past three games in Boston, he was 22-of-46 and 6-of-16 from 3 in the Cavs two home regular-season wins over the Celtics taking the same shots. He believes those shots will fall in the friendly confines of the Q, and the Celtics will be more than willing to make him prove it.
Clearly the Celtics have LeBron rattled, as evidenced by his lack of recognition of many of the matchup opportunities he ignored in Game 2. When Powe switched on to James one-on-one, LeBron didn't even use his dribble and missed a 20-foot jumper When Sam Cassell switched on to James in the post, he shot a quick fadeaway airball. As P.J. Brown switched on to James in transition, and LeBron picked up his dribble 35 feet from the basket.
Look for LeBron to take more time to evaluate these situations in Game 3, and look for Boston to rotate quickly to get the mismatched defender help.
The Cavs will also go to a set that put LeBron more in the open floor, running screen-and-roll on one side with a shooter in the ball-side corner, and James up high on the opposite side. This gives him only two defenders to beat when the ball is swung, and also allows him a less congested path on a backdoor cut. Look for this set and any other formation in Game 3 that puts James on the two-man side.
Ray Allen was able to get things going in Game 2, going more to his shot fake and dribble pull-up game, which Szczerbiak has trouble guarding. Look for Allen to stay on the attack in Game 3, because he has a quickness advantage on Szczerbiak and a size advantage on Daniel Gibson. Look for Cleveland to counter with more time for Sasha Pavlovic to provide a more physical defensive presence.
Pierce was able to get on track in Game 2 as well, making some plays out of the midpost and focusing on his finish in the lane rather than flailing around looking for fouls. His versatility offensively makes LeBron work on the defensive end, and look for Boston to continue going to him in that midpost and elbow extended area, where he can work his jump shot and drive game from 16 to 20 feet.
Offensively, Boston also got a great lift from its second unit in Game 2, and it was Cassell's recognition of situations and matchups that got Powe and Brown some easy baskets.
Cleveland's defense was good at the point of attack most of the game, but its rotations were slow. Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, and Joe Smith could not recover quickly enough, allowing Powe and Garnett to get to the offensive glass.
Look for Boston to continue to emphasize rapid ball movement in Game 3, which keeps Cleveland's big guys moving. The return of Ben Wallace will help Cleveland counter this action.
Expect the Cavs to shoot a better percentage at home and get a few more easy baskets in transition with some crowd-inspired defensive intensity. But also expect Boston to take the road lessons learned in their first-round series and bring more intensity and urgency. This is a must-win for Cleveland, and the Cavs will get a home-court performance from LeBron and their spot-up shooters and climb back into this series.
PREDICTION: Cavaliers win Game 3
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.