Many Celtics fans probably didn’t think that AVERY BRADLEY WINNING THE GAME two nights ago, exciting as it was, served as any sort of inciting incident prompting the Cs to take control of the Eastern Conference Finals. And we were right, sadly. While Boston thrilled in the opening half, the power of Kyrie Irving and an initially uneven LeBron James was too much to overcome.
THE GAME FLOW
While I hate the ammunition the following statement will provide to Certain People, there is some truth to it: The Celtics offense isn’t better without Isaiah Thomas, but it ditches high-spread pick and roll for pure motion offense that may well be better suited to the Cavaliers matchup. It certainly looked so in the first quarter. Despite Kevin Love starting with 5 unanswered points for his Cavs, the Cs quickly roared back with a series of whip-passes leading to drives that the Cavs poorly guarded, and then a volley of Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder threes. LeBron James called uncle first, with a timeout around the 7-minute mark.
Cleveland bounced back somewhat due to Kyrie Irving and some signature LeBron thundering rim-run-and-dunks, but they looked nothing like the squad that’s won 10 straight playoff games this season (again), often in blowouts. Q1 closed with Boston leading 28-19, holding the opposition to the lowest point total they’ve scored in a quarter all year.
The second frame proceeded with little difference from the first to start, although the Celtics didn’t score quite as efficiently and Irving carried the Cavs’ offensive burden well in the absence of true LeBron dominance. Bron’s strangeness tonight wasn’t from lack of scoring–he’s had numerous games where he contributes more as playmaker than lead gunner–but his uncharacteristic mistakes. The man’s basketball intelligence exceeds that of any basketball player, but he picked up 4 fouls due to three obvious mistakes (and, in fairness, one questionable call on a Marcus Smart three-attempt that probably wouldn’t have gone in). Weird. Kelly Olynyk was burning him and Tristan Thompson for layups. Double weird.
Regardless, no one expected Boston to hold a nearly 20 point lead for long, and they didn’t–but they didn’t fall prey to the runs that opposing teams have torched them with this entire season and Cleveland specializes in. It stayed double digits at the half, 57-47 Boston, despite noble efforts by Irving to microwave-shoot his squad back in front.
Throughout the game, Marcus Smart focused more on playmaking, rather than trying to repeat his white-hot shooting of Game 3, and that generally continued as the second half began. His Cavaliers still looked mostly lost on defense, but LeBron started to look more like his usual self, and got assistance from J.R. Smith and Love when his shots didn’t initially fall. And yet he still wasn’t all the way there–he contested a Smart three and the Celtics reserve point guard nailed it right in his face.
Things got much tighter around the third quarter’s end. We knew well the Celtics were relying somewhat on luck to stay ahead as long as they did, and the Cavaliers eventually pulling slightly ahead on a run of triples from Kyrie and J.R. and some trips to the stripe was a borderline foregone conclusion. The Cs continued to get open shots due to their superlative passing and the Cavs’ defensive struggles, but they didn’t fall as often. Crowder slipping on a wet spot and losing some time didn’t help, nor did Brad Stevens’ unavoidable deployment of Terry Rozier and Tyler Zeller to cover for Olynyk’s foul trouble and Smart’s tiredness. (Zeller, in particular,was bad. He hasn’t looked sentient since 2016, and his blown rebounds and turnovers induced undeniable cringes throughout Celtics fandom.) Irving’s hot streak turned supernova and he shook loose every Celtic who dared guard him, though he did roll an ankle briefly on one of his acrobatic layups and one wonders how much energy he expounded keeping things alive in LeBron’s absence. His run closed Q3 with a Cavs 87-80 lead.
Kyrie and LeBron, with the assistance of a friendly whistle for superstars, remained hot, and Love’s rebounding ruined Boston’s chances at offensive second chances. Cleveland’s other players allowed Marcus Smart to sneak a foul call and Crowder to nail a wide-open 3, but at around 8:00 in the fourth quarter, the Cleve lead had reached 10. You started to wonder if Boston used up all their comeback mojo for Game 3. Al Horford’s close-up jumpers kept the Cs from falling too far behind, but team’s overall shooting wasn’t anywhere near as good as it had been in the first half.
With LeBron and Kyrie remaining in takeover mode, this one was essentially lost for our heroes, down 11 with 3:15 to go. The Celtics got a few off but really couldn’t get going in the final minutes, and the Cavs came away with a 112-99 victory and 3-1 series lead.
Cleveland’s road to the NBA Finals still goes through Boston, giving our dudes a final chance to keep it competitive and stun the league, but I won’t sugarcoat anything and say it looks good. And blowing that lead is as much the fault of the Celtics as it is the obvious success of the Cavs. Some Cavs advantages simply can’t be taken by the Cs–rebounding, star clout–but the adjustments Brad Stevens and the team made could have earned them a victory and didn’t. They got a bit lazy in the second half when they couldn’t afford to, and whenever that happens, LeBron makes teams pay.
AND YET: The Boston Celtics remain the only team to have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, and while A.B.’s final three might’ve been a miracle the team worked its ass off to get there. That counts for something. It could end up being valuable currency in the offseason, when trying to sell free agents on Boston’s promise.
Rozier has been a whipping boy for Celtics Twitter during all of his playoff minutes, so why not shout him out for this rare second-chance bucket?
Jae Crowder: A more-than-respectable 18-8-4, including solid triple-shooting, but it wasn’t enough, as his -19 indicates.
Al Horford: The best all-around performer in this mostly dire series, Horford continued his success tonight with 16 points on 64 percent shooting, alongside 7 dimes, 3 boards and a steal.