Getty Images/Jason Miller
As the 4-minute mark ticked down in the second quarter with the Cleveland Cavaliers up by 20-points 49-29, TNT analysts Reggie Miller and Chris Webber essentially had locked up the series in favor of the Cavaliers and began writing the Boston Celtics eulogy with comments like, ‘Great Experience’ and ‘They are two years ahead of schedule’.
While the Cavaliers led wire-to-wire by as much as 28-points and were never threatened by the Celtics who at times seemed completely outclassed, there were a lot of things the Celtics did poorly to aid in the rout.
DEFENSE, not defense
LeBron turned his back on Kelly Olynyk while he defended him 😂 pic.twitter.com/OTckrxwmWg
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2020
What were the Celtics thinking giving LeBron James fifteen feet to get a head start? It doesn’t take a genius to know you can’t stop a locomotive in motion. Worse yet, they shouldn’t have let that switch happen. Jaylen Brown should have fought through the pick. While a small sample size, Brown has proven to be effective in making James give up the ball or make him settle for jumpers throughout this season.
LeBron James vs C’s this season
With Jaylen Brown on court:
-2.3 Net Rating, 50.0 eFG%
With Brown on bench:
+21.6 Net Rating, 64.3 eFG% pic.twitter.com/G3Mw556x8U
— Max Lederman (@Max_Lederman) May 17, 2020
Al Horford was faked out not once, but twice with the Kevin Love pump fake, giving him six free shots from the charity stripe and picking up two horrible fouls in the process. However, he is not the only one who played subpar defense. The Celtics were a bunch of sidestepping, swiping, back-pedaling, caught in no man’s land, poor defensive rotating mannequins; a step slow all night long.
The mugging of LeBron by Isaiah Thomas tells it all. Zero help.
Summary of tonight.
Cavs take a 1-0 series lead. pic.twitter.com/m9gLtb3aAH
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2020
The tweaking of lineups to get something to click by Stevens never happened. They couldn’t seem to get any momentum in the first half as they played into the Cavaliers hands, settling for jumpers. And with the exception of Brown seemed reluctant to push the issue in the paint, evident in the disparity at the line with 18 attempts for the Celtics, while the Cavs stood at the line 35 times.
Thomas, when not trapped or doubled, kept looking for contact that wasn’t there.
Glimpses of Successful Strategies
The Boston Celtics strength as a team is hard-nosed, in your grill, physical defense. When they have chosen to acknowledge that in stretches (the last four games of the Bulls and all of the Wizards series), good things happen.
A small glimpse of that showed in the third quarter, thanks to Marcus Smart. He managed to pick a pass in the passing lane and get an easy bucket. He was also the catalyst that kept Tristan Thompson off the boards in the second half, granting him only two of his nine (seven of them came in the first half) rebounds. Smart also showed that attacking mentality the Celtics need to play with at the end of the third following a missed shot by Bradley with authority.
Three minutes into the game, Horford blew past James getting a foul but the Celtics never attacked James on the offensive end again. The smart approach would have been to try to get him into foul trouble. Yes, LeBron James has only fouled out 8-times in his 14-year career and while you can claim it’s because he gets star treatment, it’s due to his smart defense and athletic ability. It also has to do with the fact that no one ever really challenges LeBron, as if it’s taboo. Believe it or not he’s human.
Sharing the ball. Collectively, they had 33-assists, a majority of those from good ball movement in the third, which led to a handful of open looks from behind the arc for Jae Crowder.
Avoiding A Clean Sweep
Defensively, the Celtics need to get in front of James and play him close. Brown should be the fifth starter and take the assignment of guarding James. James will get his, but Brown has the reach to provide somewhat of a contested shot being that he’s only an inch shorter and the quickness to stay in front of him.
Avery Bradley needs to continue to make Kyrie Irving a non-factor. Horford needs to man up Thompson, preventing him from getting offensive rebounds. Thomas should play J.R. Smith who hangs out on the perimeter, effectively avoiding the mismatch inside and on switches. The linch-pin is Crowder, he needs to play that perimeter defense that endeared him to so many fans. If Love averages 32 and 12 like he did in Game 1, those brooms will be in full force.
Above all else, they need to rotate, put a ‘CLOSED’ sign in the paint and force the ball outside.
Smart, Terry Rozier, and Kelly Olynyk need to continue to bring the energy and intensity off the bench.
Offensively, they need to move the ball and don’t hesitate. This will help alleviate the traps and doubles on Thomas. Despite Thomas’ successful run thus far, he can’t be the one-man show. The Cavaliers were 21st in defensive rating, and are vulnerable to back cuts. Isolation will not work against the Cavs. Make it a priority to get in the bonus and take advantage of one of their strengths, free throws. The Celtics were third in the league shooting .807 from the charity stripe.
If the Celtics can do these things, they can put the brooms back in the closet and make this a series, and most of all, silence all talk of being early to a party where they’ve already proven they belong. They got here, might as well give them a show.