Keith Smith: It’s been a rare occurrence this year, but the Celtics bench massively outplayed the Cavaliers and it was the difference in the game. Led by Terry Rozier’s 20 points and 15 from Marcus Smart, Boston’s reserves outscored Cleveland’s bench 48-45. But that number doesn’t even begin to tell the story for the competitive portion of the game.
Unlike the Cavs, who can rely on LeBron James’ singular brilliance with doses of Isaiah Thomas thrown in, the Celtics have to do it as a team. Kyrie Irving can carry Boston for stretches, but the team plays best when everyone is engaged and involved. An engaged and involved team is also one that tends to defend. Witness tonight, when they held one of the best offensive teams in the NBA to just 88 points on under 35 percent shooting.
Neither side is hanging a banner after a win in early January, but given the Celtics past struggles with Cleveland this one felt important for Boston to win. And they did just that, improving to 31-10 at the halfway point and 8-0 in games when they have more rest than their opponent. Considering how the season started, being on pace for 62 wins is remarkable.
Andrew Doxy: I really love this team. Additionally, I’m a big fan of Marcus Smart’s increased focus on driving to the rim, he scored more than usual tonight, but his decision to attack the basket opened up the offense in the late first and helped maintain the lead in the usually abysmal second quarter. When Smart is aggressive in driving to the rim, this usually spells good things for his outside shooting. Sure enough, he hit 50% of his threes tonight. Hopefully this isn’t one of his stretches that happens a few times a season; it would be nice if this was a permanent development.
Romy Nehme: Jayson Tatum is now treating real, live games a bit more like he was treating summer league: as a laboratory to test out his stuff, feel out what he can / can’t yet do, and keep adding pieces to his ever growing arsenal of moves. I don’t think we’ve ever had the opportunity to witness progress happen at such a micro scale; I’ve somehow become conditioned to expect Tatum to make qualitative changes on a game-to-game basis, a characteristic that’s almost as unique as his immense talent itself. The results are sometimes mixed: an array of refined moves, sometimes resulting in clanked layups that get jammed under the rim, or dunk attempts that just didn’t have enough air in them.
But to onlookers who marvel at what he’s doing on the court (that he seemingly couldn’t do just a few days prior), it’s continually impressive, like a gamer who gets a new PR every time out. His ability to take his man off the dribble without a screen, the flashes of hesitation dribbles, in and out dribbles, euro steps, reverse layups, thunderous dunks, bursts of acceleration, all with that uncanny length, placid demeanor and increasingly, an aggressiveness that will make him unguardable (JVG claimed he was a seven feet tall, so there’s that, too)... Tatum was already an intriguing rookie in his debut against the Cavs on that disastrous opening night, and he’s now dazzling less than three months later. Isn’t it fun to ask ‘what’s next’ when you know it won’t take long before we know?
Bill Sy: LeBron hit his first 7 of 8 shots and was looking to have yet another dominating performance on the parquet. His first three buckets came in transition primarily against Jaylen Brown. It was James at his most dangerous: the defense retreating and LeBron with the ball and a head of steam. He then attacked Al Horford on a poor close out, abused Marcus Smart in the post, and hit a step back long-2 in the face of Marcus Morris. Everybody and every body they threw at LeBron couldn’t stop him.
And yet, the Celtics entered halftime with a nine point lead and content with their defense on LeBron.
Last season, Jae Crowder, James’ current teammate, was Boston’s best defensive weapon against him. Brown showed flashes, but LBJ destroyed former Celtics like Jonas Jerebko, Avery Bradley, and Evan Turner. Simply put, speed and size was an issue. Now, with Morris, Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and in the future, Gordon Hayward, Stevens can put LeBron through a revolving door of 6’8ish studs and more importantly, stay home on Cleveland’s shooters and eliminate one of their biggest weapons.
In the third quarter, James hit just 1-of-6 shots, but the Celtics didn’t really make any changes. Maybe a step back to coax a mid-range shot or a little less physicality on his drives so that he couldn’t push guys off, but Boston generally stuck with their defensive plan of playing him straight up.
Check out Semi’s D on James. The floor opens up for James with shooters spread out on the perimeter and the Celtics will happily let him spin and shove his way to a contested shot in the paint.
And now, let’s hug it out:
Go get it, IT. Rooting for you.