The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers played one of the best basketball games of the season Wednesday night, and much of the postgame talk centered around the wonderful on-ball defense of Boston guard Avery Bradley.
The veteran guard reminded everyone how dangerous the Celtics can be when he’s on the court and giving the C’s lock-down defensive efforts in crunch time, matching Cleveland star Kyrie Irving step for step in the final seconds.
Bradley is getting all the credit for his one-on-one play, and he certainly deserves a sizable chunk of the praise. His footwork and general sticktoitiveness was borderline mesmerizing, especially when you consider Irving is capable of doing this:
So Irving obviously gets full marks for his ridiculous effort in the final seconds Wednesday night, but as often is the case in sports, there was much more going on in this 20 seconds or so of play.
First, the entire sequence.
Right away, the Celtics do something relatively fundamental but still very important. Cleveland guard Deron Williams tried to free up Irving by setting a screen and give him a clear path to get a run down the baseline toward the rim.
Bradley does a great job of fighting through the screen, and Boston guard Isaiah Thomas — not known for his defense — hedges the screen, not allowing Irving to get momentum and allowing Bradley to fight through the screen.
And while this is all going on, there’s one player the Celtics know they’re not going to allow to let get open. On the opposite side of the court, Marcus Smart — one of the Celtics’ best individual defenders — makes it clear Kyle Korver isn’t getting an open look at a game-winning 3-pointer.
Even 50 feet away from the ball, Smart is all over Korver.
That brings us to Jae Crowder. The Celtics forward had the unenviable task of guarding LeBron James. But Cleveland seemed intent, at least early in the play, of letting Irving try to find a play with isolation, which left James wandering outside the 3-point line. James presented no immediate threat, allowing Crowder to drop down to the foul line to give Bradley help on Irving.
Look at Crowder’s head in the shot above. It’s picture-perfect defense. He’s got one eye on Irving and one eye on James. He can see both the ball and his man. He’s not alone in his help, either. As you can see above, not only is Crowder in good help position, but so are Thomas and Al Horford. If Irving got by Bradley, the Celtics would have had as many as three players waiting to collapse on him, either forcing him into a contested shot or forcing him to pass.
Even as Bradley is doing his thing, Crowder saw James moving toward the ball, and he goes with him. James almost messes with the spacing, allowing Crowder to come over the top of the key and put himself in even better position for help.
This is important not just because it gives an extra man to help with Irving. It also quite literally takes away his space. Bradley does an incredible job of using the baseline to his advantage. The only way he can get beat to his left is if Irving steps out of bounds. If Irving tries to go back to Bradley’s left, Crowder is waiting to help.
Which is exactly what happens as Irving goes to the baseline, realizes he’s out of room before spinning around. Crowder’s there with help, and Irving settles for a fadeaway jumper from the corner with a hand in his face.
If the play ended there, it would have been a perfect play for Boston, but their effort wasn’t flawless and it almost cost them the game.
Al Horford — who ranks 120th in the NBA in rebounding rate — showed one of his deficiencies by being absolutely bullied by Tristan Thompson. The Cavs center went right through Horford to grab the offensive rebound and keep the play alive.
Thompson then does the smart thing: He got the ball to the best player in the world. Thompson quickly dished out to James, who appeared to have an open look at a 3-pointer.
However, Crowder — who crashed the boards on the Irving shot and miss — closed out in a heartbeat. He flew toward James with a hand up, which James saw coming. LeBron pumped fake, sending Crowder flying by, but Thomas left his man (Williams) and helped on James. Oh, and don’t think we forgot about Smart. He’s still in Korver’s hip pocket.
Thomas’ play to get back on James allowed Crowder enough time to get back into the play and would have been there to contest a James jump shot. As the play broke down and Thomas went to help on James, he left Williams all alone in the corner. Instead of shooting, James rifled a pass to Williams with 9 seconds to play.
Williams — tied for 102nd in 3-point percentage among qualified players, as opposed to the still-blanketed Korver who is second — got a seemingly open look, but give credit to Horford who hustled out and at least got a hand up.
Williams missed the shot, of course, and who was there for the rebound? It was Crowder, the most unsung hero of the entire play.
Check out the diagram below. The star near the top of the key represents where Crowder started the play, and then we tracked where he went on the court before ultimately grabbing the rebound — all within about 15 seconds of play.
Again, there are very few players in the world who can do what Bradley did on a player with the offensive talents possessed by Irving. But don’t let that undersell what was an incredible team effort from the Celtics in the final seconds of one of the club’s biggest wins of the season.