Jones: LeBron taking apart NBA’s best defensive team

LeBron James of the Cavaliers has been hunting -- and finding -- mismatches against Terry Rozier of the Celtics.

The Boston Celtics are facing a conundrum.

In coach Brad Stevens’ defensive schemes, the Celtics despise the double-team. They are willing to allow a contested two if the result is keeping the opposition’s 3-point shooters under control.

In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers canned 17 of 34 from deep in rolling to a 116-86 route.

Fast-forward 48 hours later, Game 4, on Monday night.

Boston did a much better job defending Cleveland’s 3-ball attack, limiting it to an 8-of-23 performance.

And it wasn’t good enough.

Cavaliers 111, Boston 102, the series now even at 2-2 heading into Game 5 at TD Garden on Wednesday night.

The Celtics’ reluctance to double and to switch on almost every screen unleashes LeBron James, allowing him the opportunity to hunt mismatches, which the Cavaliers adroitly exploit, and to systematically take apart a defense.

Against top-seeded Toronto in the second round, Kyle Korver screens forced the Raptors to switch C.J. Miles onto James.

Cleveland swept Toronto, a top-five defensive team, in four games — piling up 128 points, twice — for the second straight season.

Once this series against second-seeded Boston moved to Cleveland, Terry Rozier of the Celtics became the guy in James’ crosshairs.

With George Hill or whomever Rozier else is guarding setting the screens, it forces Rozier to switch onto James. And while the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rozier is a willing defender and doesn’t give an inch, he’s simply no match for the 6-8, 250-pound Goliath that is James.

In Game 3, he attacked and spread the wealth, piling up a dozen assists as his teammates drained open shot after open shot in the 30-point win.

Monday night, with the Boston defenders still not doubling James but doing a better job against the Cleveland marksmen, James went to work, scoring 44 points on 17 of 28 shooting.

All of which means the Stevens and the Celtics had better formulate a different game plan before Game 5… or else.

“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Stevens said of James. “You just have to battle. You have to make it as hard as possible because he’s going to find a matchup that he ultimately wants.”

In this series, it’s been revealed to be Rozier. Can you imagine what James would be doing to former teammate Kyrie Irving in these same situations if he had been healthy and playing?

“Instead of having three guys on the opposite side, they always have someone at the basket, so we’re in scramble mode,” Rozier said. “We [have] got to have better communication on the back side. That’s what they are doing different.”

While James’ supporting cast didn’t thrive as much in Game 4 as it did in Game 3, it did more than enough to get the job done.

The Celtics are willing to allow James to get his — though 44 might be a bit of a stretch — but they cannot beat the Cavaliers if Korver scores 14 points, Tristan Thompson gets 13 points and 12 boards, Hill scores 13 points and J.R. Smith drains 3-of-6 from deep as they did in Game 4.

If Kevin Love (9 points, 11 rebounds) had not been plagued by foul trouble and not shot 3-of-12, it could have been ugly. Cleveland shot 50.6 percent from the field (41 of 81) and all guys without “Love” on the back of their jerseys shot a combined 48 of 69, a blistering 69.6 percent. Chew on this — the Cavaliers turned the basketball over 18 times and was outscored in each of the final three quarters… and still won by nine points.

While the Cavaliers’ bench outscored that of the Celtics, 23-19, the hustle plays of Korver (3 blocks, an inspiring headlong dive onto the floor that saved a possession) and Larry Nance Jr. (7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks in 10 minutes), whose two-minute stretch in the Cavs’ trademark third-quarter egg-laying may have saved the day, cannot be overstated and should not be overlooked.

Coming into this series, the national narrative was these Cavaliers were all LeBron, a sprinkling of Love and a bunch of dudes.

Suddenly, though, the dudes are feeling good about themselves.

“I think we’ve played like a different team,” Korver said. “Those first two games in Boston, that wasn’t us.

“I think, hopefully, we can take a lot of what we have done here the last couple of games.”

In a complete 180 from Games 1 and 2, Cleveland simply outmuscled Boston in the last two games. Monday night, led by Thompson and Love, it pounded the Celtics on the glass, 47-37, and dominated the paint, scoring 50 points.

All against the best defensive team in the league, which was also tattooed by 68 first-half points by the Cavaliers.

“We defended a lot better in the second half,” Stevens said. “We have to have five guys playing all out and honed in defensively. In the first half, we weren’t as honed in.”

No matter what Stevens & Co. come up with, it won’t come as a surprise to James, still at the height of his powers at age 33 and in his 15th NBA season and 13th postseason.

“There’s not a defense that I have not seen,” James said. “There’s only so many you can provide on a basketball floor, and I’ve seen them all. Pretty much through when I started to play high school until now, so I’ve seen them all. [Boston] does a really good job with their communication, trying to force you to do things that you [don’t] do so well or kind of second-guess yourself.

“For me, that’s why I put the work in between days and try to work on my game to where you can’t force me to do something I don’t want to do, or I don’t have too much of a weakness.”

Stevens, praised long and far as the best coach in the NBA this side of Gregg Popovich, is now tasked with trying to lead the Celtics past the Cavaliers in what amounts to a best-of-three series.

“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” Stevens said. “It’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again.”

Which means, though, trying to get past the brick wall that is James, whose teams have won the last seven Eastern Conference championships and whose current teammates are now feeling pretty good about themselves. LeBron’s teams have won 23 consecutive playoff series in the East.

“He’s the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it,” Stevens said of James. “You just have to battle. You have to make it as hard as possible because he’s going to find a matchup that he ultimately wants.”

A conundrum, indeed.