CLEVELAND — Even Al Horford didn’t know what was coming.
With the season on the line and the Boston Celtics managing to control Game 3, Celtics coach Brad Stevens held onto three timeouts coming into the final minute. He knew this would be the chance for the Celtics to decide their destiny against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He has worked with his team on these situations practice after practice, shoot around after shoot around. But in this particular moment, he tore the playbook in half and surprised everyone with three straight baskets to close out the win.
“The last three baskets were ATOs that he drew and they were just great because the defense didn’t know what was coming. We didn’t know what was coming,” Horford said at shoot around ahead of Game 4. “A lot of the time, we’ll go through stuff in shoot around now, plays for the end of the game, but he didn’t draw those, he just kind of came up with it on the fly and made adjustments. That makes him special.”
This was the edge the Celtics found over Cleveland for at least one game. The Celtics thrive off the inbounds, leading the NBA with 228 points out of ATOs in the playoffs per Synergy Sports. After Game 2, Stevens insisted that no matter how historically ugly the loss was, it only counted for one game. The next game existed in its own vacuum, with the score starting at 0-0 and ending at 111-108 in the Celtics favor.
“If you can find a positive, I think you try to focus on that,” Stevens said. “That was tough on Friday to try to find one positive. But ultimately, you just talk about how each game is worth one.
“I think if you’re in sports long enough, you’re gonna have clunkers. You’re gonna have games that don’t go your way. I think our guys took seriously the idea of responding and just playing the next possession as long as we could.”
Horford credited Stevens for constantly seeking an edge for his team, whose second half adjustments pushed them over the top.
“He’s really good. Just his ability to pick up on little things on the floor that nobody really sees and exploiting them. He’s just great at that. Things that we don’t see, things that make a big difference, he did it all throughout last game.”
A big part of the win was the shots finally falling, especially after the Cavs were completely on fire in the first half. Stevens praises the law of averages on a weekly basis and was happy to see his good karma rewarded.
“The only time you don’t believe in the law of averages is when your team’s hot. Then that law of averages doesn’t exist,” Stevens said. “It keeps going. that’s right. Ride the wave.”
Stevens and the Celtics will hope the wave keeps flowing, because they’ll need to continue to flirt with 20 threes if they want to get over the top against LeBron.
The Celtics got the one down game they were hoping for out of LeBron and capitalized on it. That’s a necessity to survive in the playoffs, especially when going against the greatest. The first step was to abandon the switch and keep LeBron’s man – usually Jae Crowder – on him.
“The gameplan was to try not to let them get the switch so easily,” Jae Crowder said at shoot around. “Because we got demolished when we did that. So we try to stay within what we do.”
LeBron has already taken stock of Game 3 and is locked in on Game 4.
“Past it. Focus on game 4. We know we did it wrong in Game 3. Our focus is on the present. not the past.”
James was vocal about how his team needed to learn from this loss how to play desperate basketball at all times. But he doesn’t want them to get out of control.
“You gotta be smart about it as well. We have a great game plan. We look forward to the matchup tonight.”
Boston is focused on containing him, but that always leaves vulnerabilities around the court. On the second to last possession of Game 3, they doubled down on LeBron and left J.R. Smith wide open at the top of the key to get the crucial basket. Stevens was enraged and doesn’t want any more easy shots for Cleveland.
“I think that obviously you don’t want to give anybody HORSE shots. You don’t want to give anybody shots that are just like them and the rim,” Stevens said. “But the way we were guarding the other night. Again I thought we guarded a lot better than the 14 threes we gave up in the first half. Sometimes you have to tip your hat and move on.”
Boston controlled the second half’s pace and finally played good transition defense. That stems from not just hitting the open shots, but not complaining to the refs when something goes wrong.
“The best thing our team did the other night was they moved on,” Stevens said. “I thought in the first two games, we didn’t move on to the next play as well.”
LeBron didn’t enjoy going back through the film in Game 3, but he and coach Ty Lue came out of it with a clear understanding for what they need to do to turn things around in game 4.
Nah it wasn’t tough to watch. We had opportunities, but it is what it is,” LeBron said. They played a helluva game. They took it to us and we weren’t able to stop the runs that they made and the momentum that they pushed.
“Some of the plays that we made, some of the plays that I made, I was like, ‘What are we doing. What could we have done better?’ But at the end of the day you figure out the next game and go forward.”
With both teams recognizing each other’s potential, Game 4 will be intense. That sounds just about right for Jae Crowder.
“However they come out, we’re gonna be ready for it.”