The Celtics and the Cavaliers played the type of game that created takes from all over the place. You could have left that game feeling really good about the Celtics, or you could have turned off the TV worried that the team is further away than projected. Horford had an uncharacteristically bad game, the Celtics were shredded on the boards, and the team was beaten down in the 3rd quarter—a time when they usually make runs. But with all that being said, the Celtics still had a chance to win the game in the 4th quarter. So what gives?
REBOUNDING! (Bobby Manning)
In simple terms, the Celtics lost this game on the boards. 46-29 is a ludicrous margin by which to lose the rebounding battle. The Celtics' -4 rebounding differential per game is 4th worst in the NBA, they're now -128 on the year. The Celtics have to start doing one of two things: bring in rebounding assistance or stop playing three guards at a time. The IT&D lineup is their second-most-used lineup at this point in terms of minutes and are a -2 differential. Meanwhile, the starting lineup, with Amir Johnson in for Marcus Smart, is both their best rebounding lineup (10.2 per game when they're on the court together) and a +21 on the year. The benefits of Thomas, Bradley, and Smart being on the floor together at once are sensational, but what they lose in rebounding is an even greater detriment (only 2.8 RPG when they're on the floor together with Crowder and Horford). The Celts are undersized, and small-ball is not serving them well against the bigger Toronto and Cleveland teams ahead of them. There are rebounders out there who could be had for a reasonable price in all likelihood, and odds are that Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson, and Jonas Jerebko are all gone next season. There's no excuse for the Celts' lack of rebounding to cost them their ability to contend this season; it's no longer and issue that can be ignored. The Celts are 8-25 in rebounding battles this year and a perfect 8-0 record when they win the rebounding matchup. That matters.
Respect the 2nd-half comeback, it was impressive (Alex Kungu)
There was obviously a lot of things to not love in this game, but Celtics fans should take some solace in the Celtics’ big run in the fourth quarter. Some will chalk it up to the Cavs just letting up, but after re-watching it, the Celtics legitimately made a nice run. The Cavaliers know the Celtics and understand that they will continue to come at them no matter who’s on the floor. So what they did do? They started off the 4th quarter with a lineup of Irving-Shumpert-Lebron-Jefferson-Frye, choosing to leave their two stars in to stop any attempt of Celtics comeback. The Celtics countered with a Smart-Brown-Crowder-Jerebko-Zeller lineup with Stevens hoping to be able to switch 1-4 and have a big that should be able to hold his own on the down low (in theory). With Zeller in the game, and the Celtics switching everything, the Cavs would obviously have the advantage when it came to forcing mismatches (which they capitalized on multiple times). However, led by a smothering defense and the playmaking of Marcus Smart, the Celtics outscored the Cavs 19-7 and made it a 6-point game (102-108) by right around the midpoint of the quarter.
Unlike others, I completely disagree that the Celtics’ comeback should be diminished because of the context of the game. Up 20, the Cavaliers still understood that they needed to have their big guys on the court if they wanted to close the game out. But regardless, the Celtics were still able to turn it into a competitive game. That means something.