LeBron catches the bomb over Smart on way to score.
Well wasn’t that a fine bit of Vorhersagbar-Scheibewurst! German linguists have been working through the night with members of the Cavaliers PR department to coin a term for when the wildly unexpected happens in a perfectly predictable way. Last night the Cavaliers spanked the Celtics for two quarters like Pee Wee Herman at a Free the Nipple rally.
For fans it felt like deja vu. The only way you even knew the Cavaliers had played the Celtics in Boston after Game Two was trace bits of DNA on the floor. The Cavaliers were nearly as efficient as an autoclave in eliminating the Celtics 130-86 on Friday, a game which their star Isaiah Thomas left in the second quarter with a hip injury. Sleeping Beauty didn’t lay down that quickly.
Thomas was subsequently ruled out for the series, torpedoing the boat with the Celtic’s Slim Chance on it. Given the circumstances, the 17-points oddsmakers were offering to lure bettors to the Celtics side didn’t seem overly generous, even if it was the largest spread in NBA playoff history. Who could blame them!? The Cavs had taken the Celtics apart in the first two games like they were perforated. And in Boston, no less, echoing their impressive April win on the back-end of a back-to-back, with home-court advantage (seemingly) riding on the game.
But history is prologue, they say, and if the first 120 minutes of the series felt like an aggressive cavity search for the Celtics, the last two quarters called to mind Cleveland’s Warriors-like collapse to Atlanta a week after that April win in Boston. That’s when the Cavaliers became only the third team to blow a 26-point fourth quarter lead, losing in overtime to put a hollow-point bullet in their pursuit of homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Then it happened again last night at the Q, a slow motion wreck unfolding from a mile away to appreciate in stunned and befuddled silence until finally it tumbles to a stop at your feet. Not since M Night Shamalyn’s Sharknado Voorhees: Freaky Friday the 13th, have so many facepalmed so violent and earnestly. The killer instinct they’d shown in pushing the lead to fifty on the Celtics 48 hours earlier was chilling at the Leaking Lizard expending its micro-effort on a microbrew.
With seven minutes left in the third quarter, the Cavaliers held a 21-point lead, their biggest of the ballgame, expanding a 16-point halftime margin. Until last night, LeBron James teams were 49-0 when leading by 20 or more in the playoffs. That’s unusual enough. Then consider that James was held scoreless in the fourth, the first time that’s happened since his eight-point Game Four of the NBA Finals against the Mavericks in 2011.
James finished last night with 11 points (on 4-13 shooting), 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 turnovers, including 1-8 in the second half, with just 1 rebound, 1 assist and three of the team’s six turnovers. While James deferred to a hot Irving and Love in the first half, it went beyond deferment into disinterest the last 24 minutes (he played 22 of them). James didn’t much attack the basket, looking to pass instead of score, settling for jumpers and not even attempting to impose his will.
“I had a tough game, period,” James told the press. “I didn’t have it. They doubled me a little bit more in the post. My performance personally was all on me.”
But it wasn’t all he had to say. James took an opportunity to swipe at WHBC’s Kenny Roda in a surprisingly unseemly way. He complained that Roda – a fixture at playoff postgame pressers during my time at least – only asks questions when the team loses, an observation with less grounding in fact that Donald Trump’s largest-ever inauguration crowd.
Feeling rowdy, James also went after a heckler in the crowd after the game, allegedly asking him who he was to judge his performance. According to reports, the person in question played hoops at Hiram College, and attempted to loudly share his career stats as security led him away to the carbonite freezing chamber. (Someone get an alert to James’ canine to lay low for the next 48.)
We’d rather spend three days driving to California with a menopausal Roseanne Barr than 48 minutes dealing with a surly, pissed-off King. Just ask Ann Boleyn. Unless there’s something physically wrong with James – and there’s no outward indication of that – you might want to go to Game Four in something flame-retardant.
Supporting Cast Worthy of a Wes Anderson Movie
The Cavaliers came out so well. This is somewhat to be expected. The Cavaliers have been a first half team the entire playoffs, in part because they kick the other team so hard when they Rochambeau, there isn’t usually another kick coming back, perhaps engendering a little complacency. This was a common sighting in the regular season, but had seemed largely over it since receiving a week off for sweeping the Pacers.
As you can see, some of the little things that make the Cavaliers successful start to slide in the second half. They only score 2.7 points less, but their EFG% is almost 5% lower, the assist percentage is lower, the defensive rebounding is weaker and the pace is significantly slower.
When the Cavaliers don’t push the ball they slip more easily into hero ball, isolating and slowing movement, making it much easier to defend. After 16 first half assists on 21 baskets last night, they had just five on 11 buckets. It wasn’t just Cleveland wasn’t making shots, they weren’t moving the ball well, and wound up settling for lots of jumpers and three-pointers.
They probably got a little used to the long ball in the first half, only shooting six (of 35 first half) shots within 10’. While they shot twice as many close shots in the second half, they still took too many long jumpers, shooting 2-17 from distance after making 14-22 (64%) in the first half. It seemed like Stevens was grasping at straws when he suggested that the best thing the Celtics could do was hope the Cavaliers started regressing to the mean.
“Maybe there was a couple of shots we could have challenged better, but I was hoping that the law of averages would kick in at some point. Some of those shots were just incredible,” Stevens said afterwards. “I felt like we started slow in the third quarter, and it was disappointing because I felt like we could get back in that thing.”
At halftime, TNT’s locker room cam caught Stevens telling his team if they played harder than the Cavs, Cleveland would let them back in the ballgame. It seemed more like wishful thinking at the time, like saying, “I won’t ever date Scarlett Johansen if I don’t have confidence.” Uh, sure, and…
“I know that sounds crazy, but like on a lot of Love’s shots, on Kyrie Irving’s shots, I thought our defense was pretty good all night,” Stevens said. “There are things that we’ll have to look at and do better, but we were pretty connected, pretty locked in. That’s why I was disappointed at the start of the third quarter.”
The simple fact is that the Big Three were 15-22 in the first half, with 13 of the team’s 16 assists and 47 of their 66 points, including 22 by Love and 17 by Irving. Irving added 12 more in the second half, and Tristan Thompson somehow matched that, hitting 8 (of 11) second half free throws (and 12-15 for the game). Love however had just 6, and took but five second half shots, disappearing on the offensive end (though he did collect 8 boards and block two shots).
Thompson, Irving and Love combined for 75 points, which should’ve been more than sufficient, given a normal James performance. But it’s not just LeBron. The bench also was a big letdown. It went 3-14 (9 of the 14 uncontested) for nine points, while the Celtics got 32 points from their bench including 15 from Kelly Olynyk (despite only one three) and ten from Jonas Jerebko, a poor Swede’s Ryan Anderson, with five rebounds in just 12 minutes.
Early in the game Jerebko clearly threw Love to the floor and drew an obvious foul call. While it seemed stupid at the time, it raised the level of Boston’s physicality, and they really got after it from the second quarter on. In the end, the Celtics (18-40, 45%) shot better from 3 than the Cavaliers (16-39, 41%) and survived an enormous foul-shot differential (36 to 12) to earn a Game 5 in Boston.
The hustle stats were all in Boston’s favor, including 17 of 27 loose balls, and 15 deflections to Cavs 12. By virtue of all the jumpers, Cavs were outscored by twelve in the paint 36-24, which is extra sad given the lack of true post-up or driving threats. However, the Celtics move the ball and will take advantage of bad rotations, given enough opportunity. Cleveland also lost second chance points 18-13 despite winning the boards 46-38.
When Wallflowers Attack
The Celtics are without their putative star Isaiah Thomas, who provides much of their scoring punch. Without him the Celtics are essentially the Atlanta Hawks North (why Anna & Al Horford feel so at home) – which is to say a team that doesn’t get open on their team’s one-on-one skills (which their lineup basically lacks) but with good ball and person movement. In the second half the Celtics had 13 assists on 22 buckets and just four turnovers. The Cavs had five assists and six turnovers.
Above is what the Celtics do at their best – get the defense rotating and move the ball until a guy gets a relatively open shot. There was a decent contest, and there were decent contests on a lot of Celtics, but they slowly gathered confidence and suddenly those late contests* didn’t face them. After receiving the kind of berth afforded taxiing airplanes, Smart got comfortable, and by the fourth three was in heat-check territory several feet behind the line.
(*For the less initiated, a big strategy in the NBA is to late contest guys you want to shoot, only jumping at them when they’ve gone up, but giving them room where they feel compelled to shoot. Take a look at the room they gave Marcus Smart on his first few threes – it’s almost no wonder he got going. Then again, Smart is below 30% from three for his career.) Smart sunk 7 of 10 to fill Thomas’ shoes and then some.
“When it’s in a big moment, that kid is going to rise to the occasion,” said Stevens of Smart. “He just always has. That’s one of the reasons why if he goes through a funk at some time in March, shoot yourself out of it, and we believe in you, and let it fly. Because in this moment when we needed him the most, he made huge shots.”
Not that this wasn’t predictable for those who watch stats. When Thomas is on the floor, the Celtics are constantly scrambling to fill for his defensive deficiencies. Players are forced to double-team and those mismatches encourage the Cavaliers to move the ball to find the open man. Without Thomas on the floor, yeah, sure they score 2.7 less points (per 100 possessions aka pCp), but they also surrender FIVE less points.
Absent Thomas, the Celtics can finally play more of a straight-up defense and not have to double and switch so much. Guys were able to stay on their man, especially in the second half, and with LeBron not forcing the issue, were able to get away without switching, with some secondary and late doubles the encouraged him to give the ball up in the post.
“We just tried to be as solid as possible. We tried to switch a little bit less. I think we have a couple of guards out there that are bigger guards, and we just tried to rotate bodies on him,” said Stevens of his coverage on James.
From Lue’s perspective, the team didn’t match the Celtics’ physicality. “I just think physically we weren’t as physical as we needed to be defensively,” he said. “They got some open shots and moved around freely. They made a game of it, and then down the stretch they made a big shot.”
As the Celtics fought back you could see the cracks forming; plays getting testy and yelling at each other, as Love does (back?) at James after giving Bradley the baseline. The Celtics fell behind 77-56 with 6:24 left and staged a 23-10 run to end the quarter, closing to 87-82 to begin the fourth.
This isn't the look of a highly efficient offense.
As the fourth started, Lue said that his team should, “keep attacking the basket, don’t get three-point happy. Attack the basket, take what the defense gives you and then kick out if you have to.” But there the movement wasn’t there, there weren’t many drives and too many forced threes.
From the 6:24 mark in the third until Smart tied it with his seventh 3 with 5:44 left, the Cavaliers shot 3-18 and made 3 turnovers. They were saved by going 12-15 from the line. Meanwhile the Celtics outscored the Cavs 39-18, going 9-14 from 3, and 13-23 overall. Smart has 17 points in the run, including 5 threes, three assists and two free throws when Shumpert fouled him on an attempted three.
The Cavs have a chance to win down the stretch, and made all three of their two-point attempts in the last four minutes, but only one of their five threes. Truth be told, none were bad shots, but you have to wonder about taking threes instead of attacking the rim as Lue asked, against a team that doesn’t have a shotblocker.
Love, Irving and Smith each missed very makeable shots, and that’s what you mark it down to. Sure you could note the last play where Smith failed to switch the screen, and didn’t follow Crowder as he cut to the middle of the floor. Both Shumpert and Smith then chased Crowder and no one followed Bradley. Horford would have screened the trailing player but it wasn’t necessary because of the miscommunication and Horford just kept Tristan from switching onto Bradley.
“Coming out, we were going to switch 1 through 5. They ran like a point-loop action, I call it, and Crowder curled,” Lue said. “Then the switch got confused, and we didn't get a chance to switch out. Then Horford did a great job of pinning Tristan so he couldn't get out to the shooter.”
The Celtics won a game. Big whoop. They won a game where Love played a great first half, Irving returned to form and Thompson was a beast on both sides of the floor. The Celtics made more and shot better from behind the arc than the Cavaliers, which is shocking, especially considering the Celtics were 28th in three point shooting percentage last year, with largely the same roster.
You might say last night’s success is unsustainable but they’ve been shooting well from behind the arc all postseason, even better than the Warriors. There’s no denying the Celtics are better defensively without Thomas on the floor, and if Smart can score 20+, he’ll more than makeup for Thomas’ loss on the other end. However Smart’s performance shouldn’t be replicable. Expect Smart to toss enough bricks on Tuesday for another bridge across the Cuyahoga.
But even if the Celtics good shooting continues and the Cavaliers defense remains lackluster, the bullet in the chamber is LeBron with a chip on his shoulder. Given the nine straight 30+ point games heretofore, it hardly seems much to expect another one in Game Four. The Cavaliers have quite simply invested too much in this project to give back home court advantage to the Celtics.
Expect more Love, especially in the post – which they got away from in his three-point barrage. Also look for James to try to get in the post more. He’s somewhat less threatening out front running the offense if he’s not getting to the hole or knocking down the jumpers.
That was the case last night, but as it hasn’t been that way all playoffs, we’ll bet on what we’ve seen before and brand last night an outlier. We just can’t see James letting this pass, and when he’s focused, amazing things happen and 3-1 deficits disappear. Just a dollop of that fury is enough to end this series.
Okay Celtics, you got us. Now run that back and see if you can repeat it, cause we’re betting you can’t. Note: One small concern - Deron Williams checked out in the fourth quarter holding his shoulder. The Cavaliers lack of a reliable backup point has been an issue all season, if he goes down, it will be a big loss, as his ballhandling and scoring ability will be needed against the Warriors.
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, and hear us every Monday morning at 11 a.m. during the season talking Cavs with Michael James on the Defend Cleveland Show on WRUW 91.1.