The Boston Celtics are about as much of an afterthought right now as a team with an Eastern Conference Finals lead can be. The team’s first selections in the first round each of the last four years compromise 80% of the team’s typical crunch time lineup. They are unbelievably young, have assets moving forward, and will return two All-Stars from injury next year. Yet, this series is not as much about the Celtics ascendance as it about the Cleveland Cavaliers clawing at the door frame, preventing an ejection into irrelevance.
Even with a resounding 116-86 butt whooping--Terry Rozier’s words, not mine--that the Cavaliers doled out Saturday night, Cleveland has the energy of the team felt more relieved than triumphant. That’s pretty understandable, given the high stakes that surround them. Their direct Eastern Conference rivals in the Celtics stand to massively improve if healthy next year, as do the Philadelphia 76ers. The Milwaukee Bucks are suddenly in a less dire position than it seemed a few weeks ago after hiring one of the better head coaches in Mike Budenholzer. The Indiana Pacers have the non-guaranteed contracts to make a run at a player in free agency should they so choose. For a team that is dangling over the “Lebron James departure” shark tank, the subtext is screaming: win or else.
What Kind of a Hand Does Cleveland Have?
The Cavs are an on-the-fly team, stitched together by a front office under duress playing a high stakes game of hedges and risks. Pinned between satiating one of the two best players of all time and the costs that come from an extreme “win now” mandate and the spectre of Klutch Sports, the Cavaliers have actually maneuvered themselves relatively nimbly. A fleecing of the Knicks and Thunder to create wing depth and obtain a first round pick, an increasingly lopsided Kevin Love deal, and the Kyle Korver acquisition all stand as good examples of a team finding decent value for their own assets. On a Cavaliers team that possessed Kyrie Irving, having this shooting all around the floor made them a veritable juggernaut. On today’s version of the Cavaliers, it remains the last line of defense against accumulated institutional loan interest.
The Cavs have few options outside of “have the best player in the world” which, to be fair, they are excelling at. Kyrie Irving demanding a trade put the Cavaliers in a difficult position, and they were forced to redistribute their reliances on the fly. James’ load increased, defensive personnel like Iman Shumpert gave way to offensive ‘boosts’ like Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood, and the Cavs plummeted to 29th in defense to order to maintain their top-5 offense. That might have been the right move, as the Cavaliers have had a historically great offense for years. It’s probably easier to replicate passable defense with effort than it is to summon historical offense from nothing.
However, what the Cavs are left with is a roulette squad who go into every game against a good team with a big bet on red. Hyper reliance on three point shooting, streaky defensive effort, and a Vanderpump Rules level of chemistry give the Cavs a “Jekyll and Hyde” persona that allow them to win or lose almost every night regardless of opponent or stakes. Houston has made similar bets, as high variance is often what it takes to stand a chance in the age of the Warriors. The difference is that the Cavs needed this ultra-elasticity just to make the Conference Finals and perhaps earn a trip to the Finals, but such a victory will come at the price of ulcers for much of the Wine and Gold faithful.
I expound on the Cavaliers’ position because it’s important that the Celtics understand the context of their opponent. The dissociated swings of the Cavaliers can rob a team of their confidence or reason, should they buy into the throughlines of a brutal dispatch or an easy win. The Cavs’ range is so extreme that it’s easy to develop a fool-hardy swagger or a depressed apathy in response to whichever performance they unveil that night. In order to counter these fluctuations, the Celtics must be steady. They must not get too high or too low. They have to focus on what they can control.
Luckily, I think I know a guy who might be able to coach the team this way.
What’s to be done?
As far as the issue of “controlling what they can” is concerned, the Celtics have some work to do in Game 4. The Cavaliers bombed the Celtics out of the Quicken Loans Arena in Game 3, nailing 50 percent of their threes to effectively end the game by the late third quarter. Take a closer look at how the Cavaliers hit their three points and the results are even more staggering. Remove a 1-5 yacking by Jose Calderon and Jordan Clarkson in the final four minutes of garbage time, and the Cavaliers were 15-of-24 (62.5%) from above the break in Game 3. The Cavaliers shot 36% from above the break during the regular season, so for some context, they could have missed another 15 shots from above the break and still finished above their season average.
Before we go further, I want to hammer down a point. The Celtics lost this game by 30. No matter how extreme the Cavaliers shooting, the Celtics got outplayed on a fundamental level. You don’t lose by 30 unless the other team has put you in a locker and hung you by your underwear on the coat hook. If the Celtics are going to lick their chops and cackle when the Cavaliers’ craps table comes up snake eyes, they similarly cannot throw their hands in the air when a Smith/Korver heater gets cooking. Torrid Cavaliers shooting will happen again in this series and the Celtics have to understand that that’s not an excuse to vacate their game. The Celtics let the Cavaliers shooting fluster them and they got away from the more cerebral attack on the Cavaliers’ shaky defense we had seen earlier in this series.
On a similar note, three point shooting is not totally a chance based result and treating it as such is one way for the Celtics to quickly lose their advantage in this series. The Cavaliers may have shot unsustainably well from behind the arc, but the Celtics had plenty of times where they played the type of defense that turns a 33% shot in to 45% shot.
On this play, the Cavs run a clear out for James, who is corralled to the middle of the floor well by Horford. Brown does a good job showing an extra body at the rim while not losing track of Thompson, and James is caught in the air with the options of passing or taking a difficult fall away shot. However, Rozier has sagged over to a no-mans-land position where he is neither engaged with Hill, nor in position to box out Thompson. James makes the read and the Cavs get a corner look that mercifully doesn’t go in. Turns out that “torrid Cavs shooting” wasn’t even as bad as it could have been.
In a particularly gross example of bad Celtics defense, the Celtics ended the quarter on a wide open Kevin Love three that also didn’t go in. Marcus Smart and Greg Monroe seem to have a communication issue, as Monroe switches onto Hill yet Smart stays on him. This frees Love who has plenty of time to beat the plodding Monroe contest.
On this play, Jaylen Brown rotates off of Kyle Korver in the corner (oof) in order to break up a lob attempt created by James getting penetration off of Rozier. The ball is tapped into the back court by Jayson Tatum, but he loses the race to the ball, leaving an easy pass to an unguarded Korver. Ojeleye actually reads this very well, and flies out to run Korver off of the shot, but no other Celtics rotate out to guard the second attempt and Korver simply side steps into a wide open shot.
The Cavs might have shot well, but if the Celtics divorce themselves from that responsibility, this series will turn on a dime.
On a similar note, the Cavaliers defense was much improved, demonstrating
a commitment to ‘actually rotating’ and ‘limiting sulks to three a minute” an energy they had not shown previously and making things harder for the Celtics with their activity level. That said, I would like to examine the second offensive possession of the game for the Celtics. Now bear in mind this is how the Celtics came out and basically began the game.
I’m going to lay out a quick diagram of the play and lets see if anyone can find anywhere the Celtics might be able to improve against this Cavaliers defense.
Hmmm, I can’t find anything right now, but I’ll come back to it later.
On this play Terry Rozier launches a contested off the dribble three during a 2 on 5 fast (slow?) break. In a shocking turn of events, the Cavaliers collected the rebound.
In a similar vein, Marcus Smart also pulls the trigger on a contested off the dribble three during a 2 on 4 fast break. I’m choosing to believe Smart saw the diving Monroe, and got a shot up to get him a possible clear rebound. Please don’t tell me otherwise. All-in-all not a smart play by Marcus, who behaved like it was a two-for-one opportunity.
What are the stakes?
While the Cavaliers certainly played stronger on both sides of the ball, there’s plenty to point to the Celtics having a great opportunity to sneak a game on the road in Game 4. More engaged defense should help the Cavaliers regress to the mean and less panicked attempts early in the clock due to a large Cavs lead should allow the Celtics to return to more comfortable scoring.
The Cavaliers Casino will have cold streaks and it will have hot streaks, but the Celtics need to stay calm and not disengage or become flustered like they did in Game 3. I still believe them to be the better team and I think there’s a good chance for them to come back to Boston with an opportunity to clinch. It’s difficult to play against a team that can win or lose a game entirely on their own, but the Celtics need to focus on what they can control. They’ve just got to stay even, stay sharp, and not lose their head one way or another. After all, the Celtics still have homecourt and a 9-0 record at home in the playoffs.
Gamblers always have to remember that the longer you play, the house always wins.