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Stay on the offensive: Celtics need to attack Cavaliers’ defense

Without Isaiah Thomas, Boston’s young core of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier must remain aggressive.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Game 2 was a blood bath. The autopsy on the box score was what you would have expected in a 44-point blowout. The Celtics turned the ball over 21 times. Cleveland made nearly half of their 39 three pointers. The Cavaliers’ starters combined for a +165. Dig even deeper and it gets uglier. Boston shot an abysmal 28.9% on uncontested shots (11-for-39) and just 8 of 27 from behind the arc. They settled for an inordinate amount of long-2’s, making just 6 of 25 between the restricted area and the three-point line. Here’s the shot chart from Friday night:

After two games of these Eastern Conference Finals, the contrast between Cleveland’s maturity and poise with Boston’s feckless response has been stark. The Cavs have played with the purpose and aggression of a team that’s confident that they can get any shot they want whenever they want. The Celtics, on the other hand, have been tentative and unsure. Every missed shot on that shot chart is just another blemish on the face of this young team painfully growing through its adolescence.

On Sunday, Brad Stevens must make sure that youth is not wasted on the young. Facing a 2-0 deficit with Game 3 on the road without Isaiah Thomas, it’s time for Stevens and the Celtics to throw caution to the wind and turn the rest of this series over to its young core.

Stevens will most likely start Marcus Smart at the point like he did after halftime of Game 2; Smart responded with 4 assists and 1 turnover in his nine minutes of the 2nd half. He’ll also play Jaylen Brown more. Brown lead the Celtics with 19 points despite some early foul trouble.

Their numbers don’t exactly pop off the page considering that much of it came in garbage time, but just based on the eye test, you could see how Smart and Brown’s aggressiveness on the offensive end could be the key to the Celtics having any chance of hosting a Game 5 back in the Garden on Thursday.

After Thomas re-aggravated his hip injury, Boston lost it’s primary playmaker and driver. His absence forced the Celtics to find other ways of attacking Cleveland’s D. It’s difficult to find the silver lining in the franchise’s worst loss in the Conference Finals ever, but without Thomas, there were bright spots that will have to be more consistent in Games 3 and 4. One of them was Marcus Smart.

NBA defenses have three levels: 1) the on ball defender, 2) the nearest off ball defender particularly in a pick-and-roll, and 3) the help defender(s). Smart doesn’t have Isaiah’s speed and quickness, but he does bring a bully ball mentality in his point guard play.

For example, here’s Smart in the post. He’s not going to back down Kyle Korver and hit a fifteen foot fade away, but his size and strength on the block forces Korver to play him tight. Avery Bradley, so smooth off the ball, becomes Smart’s primary target. In order for him to shake his defender and the defense’s second line, Terry Rozier chips Iman Shumpert with a screen, and Bradley has an easy layup while Kyrie Irving tries to direct traffic on the third line.

Smart again is the primary ball handler with Al Horford setting up a pick-and-pop. Smart freezes Kevin Love with his deliberate dribble and Shumpert as the help defender keeps his eyes on Horford. Again, AB cuts back door on the third line and gets another uncontested look at the rim.

Here, Smart uses his size to penetrate and kick out to Horford who is spacing the floor. Horford hits the three and gets an and-1 on a drive.

Rozier will get some run as Boston’s back up point guard, bt it’ll be on the shoulders of Jaylen Brown to really make this game competitive. In the summer, he’s going to have to work on his handle, but the summer isn’t here yet. Against Cleveland, any chance he has to penetrate and force the defense to collapse, he needs to take it. Brown has said all season that Gerald Green has been his biggest mentor. Some might cringe at the idea of Green mentoring the former #3 pick in the draft, but let’s just hope that he’s instilled his shoot first, ask questions later mantra into the rook.

I’m not one for obituaries and season reviews before the season is even over. If you want to tell yourself that the next two games can serve as a showcase for the younger players, that’s fine. If you want to think that if Boston can keep Cleveland’s lead under 20, then it’s a moral victory, that’s fine, too. However, this is a team that we’ve underestimated all season—particularly myself when it came to the young bench—and they’ve always delivered.

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