That was what we needed.
In a playoffs that has felt inevitable and lacked drama, the Boston Celtics gave us a great night. Down 21 on the road with Isaiah Thomas in street clothes, the Celtics did not roll over — they crashed the glass and pushed the pace when they could, their threes started to fall, and the Celtics just outworked the Cavaliers.
Boston now trails 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they can even the series with a win Tuesday in Cleveland.
Don’t bet on it.
What Boston did Sunday was amazing, but it’s not really sustainable. Here’s why.
• LeBron James is not going to be that bad again. He had been the best player in the postseason to this point (eight straight 30-point games), then he was terrible on Sunday night: 4-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from three, one point in the game’s final 18 minutes. He only had three shot attempts in the fourth quarter and missed them all. This was a game where Kelly Olynyk looked like he could guard LeBron.
“I had a tough game period, not just in the second half. Me personally, I didn’t have it,” LeBron admitted postgame. “My teammates did a great job of keeping us in the game and building that lead, but me personally I didn’t have it. That’s all I’ve got to say about my performance.”
Boston did a better job bringing help against LeBron and doubling him at times, but even when isolated he just did not look like the guy who carved up Boston (and Indiana, and Toronto) this postseason. It was just one of those nights.
Don’t expect another one of those. Expect LeBron to come out like a man possessed in Game 4.
• Boston isn’t going to hit threes like that again. Kevin Pelton from ESPN summed this up well in one Tweet.
Smart was 5-of-6 from three in the second half (on some tough shots), and as a team the Celtics were 11-of-22 from deep after halftime. Boston is a good three-point shooting team, they attempted the third most of any team in the league and hit 35.9 percent on the season (14th in the league), but for a half they got hot. That’s not sustainable.
Nor am I sold Smart can have another game like that period, he picked up what they were missing from Thomas being out.
• Boston isn’t going to own the offensive glass like that again. In the second half, the Celtics had eight offensive rebounds — they got a second attempt on one-third of their missed shots. Boston has to rebound by committee, and they did that in this game, but part of that was a seeming disinterest from Cleveland on doing the work. Which brings us to our next point…
• Cleveland looked like a team that thought they had it won. They took their foot off the gas and it showed — Boston was dominating the glass and still was out-hustling Cleveland down the court. Credit the Celtics there, they kept working hard and in the face adversity played with even more energy, while the Cavaliers coasted.
• The one thing Boston can sustain? They’re a better defensive team without Isaiah Thomas. During the regular season, the Celtics were 8.9 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Thomas was out of the game. Look at it this way: When Thomas was off the court this season the Celtics defense was slightly better than the Spurs, but when Thomas was on the court they were essentially the Knicks.
Thomas being out doesn’t make the Celtics better, they miss his offense — Marcus Smart was fantastic, but he is not going to be able to play the role of Thomas again — but it does make them a better defensive team. Cleveland, and specifically LeBron, need to be better prepared to deal with that.
I expect in Game 4 they will be.