Definitive Blueprint for Boston Celtics to Slow Down LeBron James and Miami Heat

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2012

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 05:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat looks to pass the ball against Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics in the first half of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on June 5, 2012 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics remained one of the NBA's best defensive teams last season, but one challenge proved to be in a league of its own: stopping LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

Point guard Rajon Rondo said as much to the South China Morning Post's Matthew Scott:

"We've not been up to par in terms of winning the championship but we've been in every round in every fight," says Rondo. "There are a few things we have to do - obviously stopping LeBron. But that's easier said than done. We've got to do a better job of team rebounding, keeping guys out of the paint. That's not just when playing Miami but overall. We got to get better rebounding and defensively."

Rondo may be right that stopping LeBron is "easier said than done," but it's really not even that easily said either.

Who stops LeBron?

Nevertheless, the Celtics will have to find some way of slowing head coach Erik Spoelstra's machine down. The road to another title will inevitably pass through Miami one way or the other, and Boston can't simply hope that its offense clicks more regularly than it did during last season's Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics topped 100 points just twice in seven games, and one of those instances required overtime to get there. There's no guarantee the additions of Jason Terry and Courtney Lee (along with the return of Jeff Green) will significantly change things.

That said, an improved offense may indeed be the first step to containing Miami.

The Heat thrive when they're able to push the tempo, and they don't require turnovers to do so. Missed shots will often suffice

The Celtics have one of the better transition defenses in the league, so it's not as if they're at great risk of getting dunked on every time down the floor. But, there's still little doubt they'd have an easier time setting up on the defensive end when they're actually making baskets.

After all, it takes a village to keep guys like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out of the paint, so any team is better off if it can force Miami to slow things down and run plays. That extra moment or two means defenders can find their assignments and maybe get a read on what the offense is up to.

Scrambling and back-pedaling against Miami's superior athletes, on the other hand, is clearly a less-than-ideal routine.

Assuming the Celtics can force the Heat into somewhat of a half-court game, now what?

In the Eastern Conference Finals, Kevin Garnett was the all-important defensive anchor, and that will remain absolutely key (via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg):

Boston's defense clearly hinges on Kevin Garnett, who has proven to be the individual key to its postseason success (and maybe their second-half resurgence before it). The Celtics can barely afford to take Garnett off the court this postseason.

Garnett is blowing up pick-and-roll attempts and protecting the rim. Buckets don't come nearly as easily when he's on the floor (as reflected in Boston's ridiculous plus/minus numbers based on KG's court status).

But, KG wasn't enough to stop the Heat. Relying on him so heavily isn't entirely fair given how much he's asked to contribute on the offensive end (and against bigger bodies at the center position, no less).

Head coach Doc Rivers' first step, then, will be to get Garnett some help on at least on one end of the floor. Perhaps Fab Melo can help him protect the paint, and perhaps scorers like Jason Terry will take some of the offensive pressure off.

Either way, the 36-year-old shouldn't be the focal point on both ends of the floor. 

Fortunately, Boston's new personnel will make another run at the Heat a bit easier. A healthy Avery Bradley is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and that's a scary thought as he's paired with Rondo, an exceptional defender in his own right.

At the very least, the Celtics will be able to pester Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade enough to cause a few turnovers, disrupt some offensive sets and perhaps even make the shot clock a factor from time to time.

Meanwhile, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green will offer a helping hand on the wing. Lee's especially valuable on this front thanks to his lateral quickness and sound fundamentals.

The Celtics have to hope that the new faces will move and help well enough that Rivers can send multiple bodies at LeBron. The notion that he'll do more damage as a passer than scorer isn't a reason to give him space.

He'll still be able to make the pass whenever he wants to.

The key in making James mortal is keeping him guessing with an onslaught of different defensive looks—denying him the ball, doubling him early, doubling him as he makes his move, using different help defenders and so on.

ESPN blogger Beckley Mason explains:

All the athleticism in the world won’t do much to contain James unless it’s employed in an aggressive, well-executed concept. The Mavericks and Celtics would double James as he caught the ball, and then retreat back to close up passing angles. The effect was that James held the ball too much and, still lacking the back-down game he used to bull his way to the paint against the Thunder, he struggled to create for himself and others as a result.  

Is it a perfect solution? No. But, nor does such a solution exist against a three-time MVP.

When all is said and done, the Celtics have to slow down penetration, and they have to keep hands in the faces of Miami's countless spot-up shooters. They won't prevent James from scoring 30 points, but they'd do well to make him take some jump shots and otherwise limit the extent to which Wade can pile on.

Defending the Heat is a matter of choosing between the lesser of evils, and the Celtics have the tools to make some pretty good choices.

No one can stop the Heat entirely, but Boston just might be able to stop them enough—and that's all that matters.


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