By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Celtics identified Marcus Morris as a valuable addition to the team when they swapped Avery Bradley for him from the Pistons, in part because of his shooting ability for his position. But they also brought Morris in for his defense, particularly against guys like LeBron James.
Nobody can "stop" LeBron. But Morris' potential to disrupt him and make things as difficult as possible for the Cavs superstar will be key to the C's giving themselves a chance to win the Eastern Conference Finals.
Celtics president of basketball ops Danny Ainge expounded upon the offseason addition of Morris during his weekly call with Toucher & Rich on Thursday. He admitted that Morris' defense against the league's elite wing players was one of the big reasons they got him.
"We know that we have to go through Cleveland," Ainge said. "We know that we need a lot of guys at that position to have to throw at a player like LeBron. Not just LeBron, but the bigger guys. Kevin Durant, those kinds of players, a lot of them around the league. ... Morris is a versatile player who can defend those kinds of players."
Although Morris' best defense against LeBron came two years ago when he was with the Pistons, there are numbers (and video evidence) to back up the claim that he can guard LeBron as well as anyone in the NBA - certainly in this series. Thanks to Tomasz Kordylewski of Celtics Life, there's a video compilation of Morris' best possessions defending LeBron from 2015-17, if you just want to rely on your eyeballs. Check it out below:
As you can see in these clips, Morris is at least capable of keeping LeBron in front of him, limiting his space, and contesting his shots effectively. In many of these possessions, LeBron's best recourse was to set up a pick-and-roll, pass it off to a shooter on the perimeter, or take a tough shot with Morris in his face. When he's at his best on the defensive end, Morris can at least make LeBron and the Cavs grind to get their points.
That doesn't mean the exact same thing will happen in Celtics-Cavs, but there are also some promising stats to know ahead of this matchup. In the Cavs' playoff series win over the Pistons in 2016, mostly facing Morris, LeBron averaged 22.75 points per game - his lowest average of any series in the past seven years.
Morris' best defensive season against LeBron came in 2015-16 with the Pistons. He held LeBron to just 20.5 points per 100 possessions, LeBron's lowest such mark against any player in the league, according to TrueHoop TV. That was well below LeBron's season average of 36.5 points per 100 possessions that season.
It's fair to wonder if LeBron "figured it out" by 2016-17, when he averaged 35.1 points per 100 possessions against the Pistons - compared to 34.9 points against the whole league. And the one major caveat to all this is that LeBron looks to have taken his game to yet another level in 2018. He's averaging 34.1 points per game in 11 playoff games so far.
In the two games that Morris played against the Cavs this season, he wasn't always the one guarding LeBron. You can see in this video that the Celtics had something of a "committee" of defenders against him. Those defenders included Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and even Greg Monroe and rookie Semi Ojeleye. When Morris did defend LeBron, he often let No. 23 get behind him easily on drives to the basket, which was uncharacteristic of his time in Detroit.
Needless to say, Morris himself will need to be better than he was in those two games, the last of which the Cavs blew the Celtics off the TD Garden floor by a 121-99 score back in February. Based on that post-trade deadline clunker, the Celtics may need a different defensive approach altogether. But if Morris can regain the performance he had in his Pistons days, that would go a long way to at least making LeBron and the Cavs work as hard as possible to light up the scoreboard.
Morris led all Celtics who played at least 50 games this season with a 104.8 defensive rating. The hope is he matches or improves upon that number when matched up against LeBron. It'll be one of the key matchups to watch all series.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].