In the wake of Game 1, Boston’s defense on LeBron James and how it frustrated Cleveland as a team was the hot topic. With good reason. Marcus Morris led a ball-pressure attack on LeBron, the other defenders stayed home and pressured shooters, Boston took away passing lanes, and all that forced Cleveland to shoot 36 percent overall and 4-of-26 from three, plus turn the ball over and just look out of sync.
That, however, was not Cleveland’s only problem.
Boston’s offense had a net rating of 114 (points per 100 possessions) in Game 1 — that’s 8.8 more per 100 than the Celtics averaged during the regular season, and 6.6 more than in the playoffs. Boston attacked and scored 60 points in the paint Game 1, added 17 points off 10 Cavaliers turnovers, found some opportunities in transition (off their many stops) and in the end put up 108 points without much effort on Sunday afternoon.
Going back to last playoffs, the Cavaliers have just tried to outscore teams, not win with defense. That has worked well enough, so far. It may not be any more.
Sunday we saw what looked like the Cavaliers’ regular season defense, which was 29th in the league. The Cavs had a couple good defensive possessions in the first five minutes of the game, but soon the Celtics figured it out and picked the Cavs apart. Boston went with a lot of isolation attacks early, specifically targeting Kyle Korver, and it worked beautifully. It set a tone.
If the Cavaliers do not defend better going forward it may not matter that LeBron and the offense started to click because they may not be able to just outscore Boston. These Celtics stick to their gameplan, are not going to make the mistakes of Indiana and Toronto, and are not going to back down from the moment.
In the playoffs, the Cavaliers’ defensive effort has been better, but their recognition and communication on that end was still lacking. Boston blew that up Sunday afternoon. They moved the ball and found the open man, with 27 assists on 43 made buckets.
Boston attacked the rim from the start, and their best defenders on LeBron had the best games on the other end — Jaylen Brown had 23 points, Marcus Morris had 21 points (and 10 assists), and Al Horford had 20.
Despite lacking the shotmaking of Kyrie Irving, the Celtics’ offense has been dialed in during the playoffs. The reason in part is knowing who is on the court, and the chance to follow a good game plan — the Celtics game-plan discipline is the best of any team in the playoffs this season.
“Through the regular season there was so much changes with our group, different injuries, things like that,” Horford said after the game. “Once we’ve been able to settle down and find what fits this group, that’s prompted us to be better offensively. Then you just got to give credit to coach (Brad Stevens), he’s making adjustments and is able to key in, whatever the matchup, and giving us those options to go out there.”
Boston’s offense did feed off the defense. That was especially evident in the 25-4 run that decided the game.
“On offense, we were taking good shots, really moving the ball, and really taking really good looks,” Horford said of the offense during that run. “That helped.”
Tyronn Lue has a lot of work to do before Game 2. Sunday was a wakeup call for the Cavaliers that it will take more than LeBron to carry them this round, and the Cavs need to knock down those open shots they missed in Game 1.
However, the bigger challenge will be coaxing a team that has not played quality team defense all season to start doing it now. If they can’t get better fast, LeBron may not be able to carry this team much further.