By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Celtics completely waxed the Cavaliers in Sunday’s 108-83 win in Game 1, on the strength of a total team effort up and down the court. But offseason acquisition Marcus Morris was expected to be a key cog in that wheel against LeBron James and the Cavs.
For one game, anyway, Morris delivered his best basketball for Brad Stevens as one of Boston’s more dominant players in a Mother’s Day beatdown against Cleveland. Never mind Morris’ great offensive output; he was specifically looking forward to defending against LeBron. He lived up to his brash assertions as one of several players to turn in a superlative afternoon in slowing down LeBron’s game and – by extension – the rest of the Cavs’ offense.
“I’m a competitor; he’s the best player,” Morris put it bluntly when he spoke to reporters after the game. “I’ll be able to tell my kids this some day. It’s exciting, I love the challenge. But like I said, it’s a team effort.”
Morris is right about the last part. The Celtics at times had pretty much everyone on the court taking turns guarding LeBron. Their constant switches on screens were impeccable, presenting the Cavs with unexpected mismatches from start to finish. But having Morris’ large frame and defensive acumen in the lineup proved to be a key component of the C’s incredible team display when playing without the basketball.
“It’s a team effort, man, it’s not just me,” Morris said. “Everybody played their part guarding [LeBron]. He’s obviously the best player in the game. You need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game.”
He’s not kidding. At certain points, even Terry Rozier had to cover LeBron. But the longer the game went on, the more evident it became that the Cavs simply weren’t going to solve the C’s at that end of the court.
It also didn’t help matters for Cleveland that Morris often followed up a strong defensive possession with sharpshooting offense. He shot 7-for-12 in the game, including 3-for-4 from three-point range, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds. He finished with a plus-25 rating, second only to Jayson Tatum’s plus-27.
The result of Morris and the Celtics stifling the Cavs was LeBron’s worst game of the 2018 playoffs and one of his worst playoff games ever. He finished with just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting (31.3 percent).
But that didn’t tell the entire story of the Celtics’ dominance; LeBron finished with nine assists, but could have finished with a lot more. Morris’ defense on LeBron entered the series as one of the key factors, and not necessarily to slow down LeBron’s scoring. When Morris and the C’s are able to bottle LeBron up, it’s still often going to come down to his ability to find open teammates, especially on the perimeter.
The Cavs’ other four starters? They finished 11-for-33 shooting, including 3-for-14 from downtown (21.4 percent). LeBron went 0-for-5 in that department. Game 1 certainly could’ve been different if someone, anyone, could hit a shot from deep.
Still, credit is also due to Morris and the Celtics defense making the Cavs’ shots as hard as possible. Even when LeBron could pass the ball off to an open teammate, they were rarely left uncovered. And they couldn’t make the easy shots, either. But if Cleveland’s shooters can’t start making the tough ones, the series could only tilt more in the Celtics’ favor.
Morris showed for at least one night why the Celtics targeted him in the Avery Bradley trade with the Pistons. He and the C’s may not utterly dominate on defense again in this series, but they’re clearly capable of making life as hard as it can be for the Cavs offense. Morris played a key role in that on Sunday.
If Morris and the rest of the Celtics can continue to deliver defensive efforts like they did in Game 1, LeBron’s next trip to the NBA Finals would have to be as hard-earned as it’s ever been in his career.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.