By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
It’s a series.
Of course it is. It was always going to be one. Irrespective of supporting cast, coach, and impending organizational turmoil, did you really expect LeBron James and the Cavaliers to lay down so the Celtics could Ric Flair-strut to the NBA Finals? While the Cavs roster is stocked with flawed basketball players, a handful of them have logged an awful lot of minutes in June over the last few seasons. Based on that fact alone, you can’t compare them to a bunch of pushovers – like the 76ers.
And perhaps more importantly, do you really expect the Celtics to resemble a passable NBA team on the road?
Boston just tumbled to a concerning 1-5 in road playoff games and suddenly, we’re reminded that this is the same group that needed seven games to dispatch the Milwaukee Bucks. Across those six games, they’ve shot under 41 percent from the field, clanged away at just a hair above 30 percent from downtown and, especially recently, gotten killed on the offensive glass. Opposing teams are generating five more assists per game. The Celtics are trying to shoot their way out of the opponent’s gym and failing miserably.
Kyrie Irving’s absence has never been an excuse for this team, particularly as the region makes plans for the NBA Finals in earnest. But the Celtics were once one of the best road squads in the league. Since the All-Star point guard went down, they’re 7-10 away from TD Garden.
Cleveland’s 30-point Game 3 blowout did more than send the Finals Party Planning Committee scurrying into the conference room. It planted seeds of doubt that could quickly grow into a beanstalk of a 2-2 series coming back to Boston. And unlike last week, the loser of Game 4 won’t have three days to regroup, with Game 5 comparatively hitting both teams like a truck on Wednesday night. Luckily for the Celtics, it will be contested at home.
In the interim, the Celtics have to play a brand of basketball they haven’t been able to sustain away from the Garden. Gone on Saturday night was the team that set the tone by running the offense through Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the one that dumped the ball down low to Al Horford to abuse Kevin Love or score on a mismatch. The one that flummoxed various Cavaliers with insane defensive intensity.
Instead, there were too many long jumpers. Particularly off the fingertips of Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris, who were a combined 4-for-17 (23.5 percent). Too many mistakes. Missed assignments and general miscommunication. In turn, the Cavs’ supporting cast buoyed the boat, with four players not named James or Kevin Love reaching double figures. Cleveland nailed 17 threes in their home gym, three more than in the first two games combined. They converted 50 percent of those attempts.
The Cavs exhibited an improved defensive presence (or maybe it was the Celtics’ passivity?) to match their enhanced marksmanship. They exploited matchups, with Brad Stevens unable to find an effective mix seemingly the entire evening. George Hill and J.R. Smith weren’t completely useless. Much was made out of the Boston backcourt outscoring Cleveland’s 72-12 in the first two games. That margin was 24-23 in favor of the Cavs in Game 3. Hill set the tone with 11 first-quarter points.
It’s difficult to set the tone on the road. But even without the electric Irving, the Celtics are still capable. It starts with that old hallmark: defensive intensity. An avalanche of threes works when the floorboards are green, but tonight they simply have to pound Cleveland. LeBron will get his, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make it difficult for him. In the meantime, challenge the Cavs’ supporting cast to submit a repeat performance. Who’s afraid of big, bad George Hill or that turkey J.R. Smith?
Offensively, they can’t settle for the first look they get, or get lost in isolation. Let Horford be a Brahma bull inside. Nothing kills a frothy home crowd like some boring old post play from the opposition. Brown and Tatum need to rediscover their aggression – that means the ball needs to be in their hands. A physical, attacking style will open up long bombs for “Scary Terry” in the latter half of the contest. And it goes without saying that they need more from Morris.
We’ve seen LeBron decimate the Celtics too many times before. Losing another game in Cleveland isn’t the end of the world, and the Cavs still have to show they can win in Boston. But it’s obviously preferable to return home with a cushion. It’s time for the Celtics to show the incredible maturation they’ve undergone this season is worth a win in a hostile environment. For Brad Stevens to stymie the inevitable backlash to the heaps of praise he’s been receiving with a legendary game plan. And isn’t it time for LeBron to sit on his couch in June, for once?
The Celtics universally panned their Game 3 performance and assured us a different team will take the floor Monday night. We’ve seen a number of different permutations of this team over the course of the season, some seemingly taking shape by accident. If the Celtics play with purpose, they can push the Cavaliers to the brink.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.