All three received a technical foul, which seems fair.
For the first time in 11 days, we had an NBA playoff game that finished with a single-digit margin. Barely.
It didn’t look like it would be early — Boston missed lay-ups and dunks all through the first quarter (and 16 shots at the rim for the game, which the Cavs turned into 15 points going the other way), LeBron James was being LeBron James, and the Cavaliers had a 16 point first quarter lead. It was 15 at the half.
But these Celtics would not go quietly.
Boston started to find it’s offensive groove — hunting Kevin Love incessantly — but in the end couldn’t get enough stops because, well, LeBron James. He finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, his sixth 40-point game of these playoffs. He got wherever he wanted on the floor all night, carving up the top-ranked regular season defense of the Celtics like a surgeon. No other Cavalier had more than 14 points (Kyle Korver), but the supporting cast played enough defensive and made hustle plays to hang on.
Cleveland got the win, 111-102, and evened the series at 2-2. Game 5 is Wednesday night back in Boston.
What Celtics fans can feel good about is their team’s resilience and grit. Down big for the second-straight game on the road in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics fought back from as much as 19 down earlier in the game to get it to single digits and make the fans in Quicken Loan Arena nervous in the fourth quarter. That is something the team can carry over to Game 5, as they can some defensive tweaks that shut down opportunities for Korver and the rest of the supporing cast.
What should bother Celtics fans was another night where they struggled to generate offense in the face of more intense defensive pressure.
That came from the opening tip, with the Celtics missing a few layups and a couple of Jaylen Brown dunk attempts — all of which allowed the Cavs to get early offenses and mismatches going the other way. Those missed shots fueled a 10-0 Cavaliers run that had Cleveland up 19-10 early. The Celtics shot 3-of-10 at the rim in the first quarter, shot 26 percent overall, and trailed 34-18 after one.
The second quarter saw the Celtics start to find their offense — they scored 35 points on 50 percent shooting — but they only gained one point on the Cavaliers lead because Boston couldn’t get stops. LeBron had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the first half to pace a Cleveland team that shot 61.5 percent overall and hit 6-of-11 threes. That’s why the Cavs were up 68-53 at the half.
The Celtics energy was better than Game 2, but in the first half they looked like a young team, one that made a lot of mistakes.
In the second half, the Celtics started to figure things out — they started making the extra pass, they got stops for stretches, they looked more like a young team finding their footing on a big stage on the road. They finished the night with 25 from Jaylen Brown, 17 from Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier had 16 points and 11 assists.
They just couldn’t completely close the gap because they couldn’t get consistent stops — the Cavaliers shot 60 percent as a team for the game, and a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 59.6. Cleveland mercilessly hunted Rozier on switches — forcing him on to LeBron or Kevin Love then attacking — and the Cavs got enough from their role players. Tristan Thompson did what he needed to bringing energy in the paint and some defense, plus he had 13 points. Korver was diving on the floor for loose balls. Larry Nance Jr. had his second good game in a row. George Hill had 13 points.
And whenever the Cavaliers needed a play, they had LeBron to turn to. He set another NBA record on Monday night, most playoff field goals made for a career.
LeBron is what needs to worry Boston most of all. The Celtics will be better at home in Game 5 — they have not lost in TD Garden all postseason — but if this thing goes seven, it’s a dangerous thing when the other team has the best player on the planet.
The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 50 games and were the four seed in the East were not that impressive, despite LeBron James‘ MVP season. They had the 29th ranked defense in the league, and while the offense was still elite (fifth in the NBA) the Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team — Cleveland was the “luckiest” team in the NBA, out-performing their point differential by seven games (a lot of that came down to LeBron being dominant late in close games).
The playoff Cavaliers that just swept the Raptors out of the second round are different. Their defense hasn’t improved much (it is the exact same net rating of 112 points allowed per 100 possessions as they had in the regular season, stats via Cleaning the Glass). The difference is their offense has taken another step forward.
LeBron is part of that. But more than just him, they have found a role for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and found a lineup that works for them — one that Tyronn Lue never broke out in the regular season. From Owen Phillips at fivethirtyeight.com.
In the team’s series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most-used lineup has been George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love. So far this postseason, they’ve logged 110 minutes together. That’s 110 more than they played together in the regular season. Compared to the Toronto Raptors, whose most-used lineup in the playoffs1 logged 801 minutes together in the regular season, Cleveland looks like it’s experimenting on the fly. But it’s working. Cleveland’s most-used postseason lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, good for third-best in the playoffs.
That lineup flummoxed the Raptors, who want to play big — Dwane Casey’s biggest mistake was keeping Jonas Valanciunas on Love until Game 4 — and did it with a simple action out of the corner that the Raptors could not solve. Zach Lowe at ESPN got into that with a brilliant breakdown of what those two are doing — and how they are improvising depending on the situation and defenders involved (check out the link, which has video breakdowns).
The play is this: Love jogging over as if to set a pick for LeBron, only to veer suddenly toward the corner and hammer Korver’s man with a pindown screen…
Korver and Love would smile hearing (Pacers’ coach Nate) McMillan describe what they do as “random.” Aside from that set pindown play, they react in the moment to how the defense approaches them — and which two defenders are involved. It mostly starts with Korver positioning himself to run around a Love screen. That is dangerous enough. Staying attached to Korver at all costs is on the first page of any opponent scouting report.
The pair has countless options from there — Korver backdoor cuts, Love postups on the switch, or if two men go with Korver on his cut then Love gets an open three, and that’s just the start — and the Cavaliers unleashed all of them on the Raptors.
Traditionally, coaches and teams find what works and a comfort level during the regular season, then build on those lineups — and use them to exploit specific matchups — in the playoffs. Cleveland’s season before the trade deadline was a write-off. Of the guys who came in after the flurry of moves, George Hill has been important as a starter, solid defender, and stabilizing influence at the point guard spot. After that, guys they snapped up at the deadline like Jordan Clarkson (playing in the low teens in minutes unless it’s a blowout) or Larry Nance Jr. (out of the rotation, playing only garbage time) are not making a difference. It’s the veterans, guys who were largely already there, guys with a high hoops IQ who know how to play the game.
They have changed these Cavaliers into the team to beat in the East.
Cleveland has found the groove it was in last season that led it to the finals — the defense wasn’t good, but it was good enough with an unstoppable offense. And an unstoppable force leading it.
That may well be enough to get them back to the Finals this season.
Cleveland’s regular season woes followed them into the playoffs — they were a terrible defensive team all season (29th in the league), so when they didn’t adjust well to slowing Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner in Game 1, it was to be expected.
However, the Cavaliers had a new problem that cost them Game 1: Their offense was terrible, scoring just 0.84 points per possession. LeBron James had a triple-double but his performance still felt just okay. Jeff Green was a disaster. So was the Cavaliers three-point shooting overall. Kevin Love was a non-factor. The Cavs didn’t get good looks and missed the ones they did get.
Indiana is up 1-0 heading into Game 2 Wednesday, so what do the Cavaliers have to do now? Here are three things to watch.
1) LeBron James has to set the tone early by scoring. To open Game 1, the Indiana Pacers put Bojan Bogdanovic on LeBron — that should have been an open invitation to go into attack mode. Bogdanovic is a better defender than you may think, but he’s nowhere near ready to handle aggressive and attacking LeBron.
Except he didn’t have to. LeBron spent the first quarter trying to set up teammates and getting everyone involved, and as a result LeBron was 0-of-3 shooting for the first quarter (he had two points from a couple of free throws). Cleveland as a team shot 25 percent for the quarter and was down 19 just 12 minutes in. LeBron was more of himself after that and finished with 24 points, but the opportunity was lost. So was the game, the Cavaliers never got all the way back in it.
LeBron has to carry more of a load with this team than any team he has been on in years, probably since he left Cleveland for Miami. Fair or not, that’s the reality. He can’t be passive and set guys up early, he has to shoulder the burden from the start and put up big numbers, then hope as the defense overloads to stop him someone else can step up with a few buckets. Expect to see LeBron attacking from the opening tip on Tuesday.
2) Get Kevin Love the ball. Love had nine points on eight shots in Game 1, and took only two shots inside the arc in his entire 34 minutes of play — and he had 6’8″ Thaddeus Young on him much of the night, a guy Love can take down to the block and score over and around. It simply was not enough touches and looks for the second best scorer on Cleveland.
Tyron Lue needs to call some sets for Love early and get him the rock down on the block and let him go to work — if the defense collapses or the doubles come, Love is a very capable passer out of the post. But let the man work. The Cavaliers were struggling to get buckets in Game 1 and were leaning more on new guys like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Jeff Green to take the shots. Basketball can be a simple game — get your best shooters/scorers the ball more and let them work. That means more LeBron and Love, less from the other role players.
3) Lineup/rotation changes: More J.R. Smith and Cedi Osman (maybe even Tristan Thompson), less of the new guys. Cleveland started Larry Nance Jr. and he looked a little lost in the moment. Jordan Clarkson played 20 minutes, however, all but two of those came when LeBron was on the court, which is not ideal (Clarkson needs the ball in his hands to create to be effective, but when LeBron is on the court the ball should be in his hands). The Cavaliers second best player in Game 1 was J.R. Smith off the bench — the veteran looked comfortable in the moment.
It’s time for Lue to consider lineup changes, or at the very least significant rotation changes. Start Smith and bring Rodney Hood off the bench. Get more run for rookie Cedi Osman, who is a good defender plus plays well off the ball and can knock down threes (36.8 percent from beyond the arc this season). And I like seeing the lineups with Love at the five, but maybe more Tristan Thompson as a physical, board-crashing change of pace (although it will be tough to play him if the Pacers have the stretchy Myles Turner at the five). Despite the roster shakeups, there are Cavaliers who have been in these moments before, lean on them.
To be honest, we learned a lot more than just five things through the first eight games of the NBA playoffs. We learned that the Bucks are a spectacular combination of talented and flawed. We learned the Raptors can win the first game of a playoff series. We didn’t so much learn as were reminded that Anthony Davis is otherworldly and Jrue Holiday knows how to defend. Yet none of those made this list.
Here are my five biggest takeaways from the first weekend.
• Of course James Harden was brilliant, but the Timberwolves blew their chance to steal Game 1. This was Minnesota’s first playoff game since Kill Bill Vol.2 was in theaters, and it was a rough one. Not because they got blown out — they didn’t — or because James Harden looked every bit the MVP (he did).
Rather, this is a tough one because the Timberwolves blew a chance to take Game 1.
We need to start with the obvious — James Harden is incredibly good at basketball. He had 12 straight points in the fourth and finished the game with 44 points on 26 shots, plus had eight assists. He made up for the fact Chris Paul played like he was still in a Clippers’ uniform, and he made up for the fact the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-25 from three. Great players can cover up a lot of flaws, and in their opener the Rockets looked flawed outside Harden.
It took all that from Harden to get Houston a 104-101 win. If you’re Houston, it wasn’t pretty but you never question a playoff win. Just take it and move on.
If you’re Minnesota, you blew it. When you’re a massive underdog to an elite team, you can’t throw away an off night from the favorite and not get a win. Yet Minnesota did it, and with the same-old issues — starting with Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t get enough shots. The Rockets switched on KAT — Houston switched everything all season, Minnesota had to know that was coming — then doubled the big man quickly, throwing different looks at him. It threw Towns off his game. Towns shot just 3-of-9 for the night. Thibodeau said he needs Towns to be more aggressive going forward, and he’s right about that, but this felt like a variation of the Minnesota problem of not getting one of the game’s best offensive players enough shots all season long. This is a recurring theme.
Add in the fact Jimmy Butler was just 4-of-11 shooting (same with Jamal Crawford) and there’s just not enough offense from Minnesota’s stars when they needed it, both all game and late in crunch time. Houston is a top-10 defensive team, but Minnesota’s stars have to be better than this — especially in the fourth quarter when Towns had one shot and Butler was 0-of-4. That’s not good enough. (It’s also part of a trend, Butler missed every shot he took this season with the game tied or his team down three or less in the final 10 seconds of games, and as a team Minny struggled in those spots.)
Here’s why Minnesota blew their chance: Houston’s shot chart from three is not going to be red like this again next game, and likely not all series.
• It’s too early to panic about the Cavaliers, but you might want to know where that button is located. If one thing is going to sink Cleveland in the playoffs we expect it to be their dreadful defense, which was 29th in the NBA for the regular season. It wasn’t impressive in Game 1 — Victor Oladipo had 32 points and just kept getting switches off a pick, backing out to isolate, starting from out by the center court logo then blowing past anyone the Cavaliers had on him. The help was rarely there in time. Oladipo had 32 points and was the driving force on both ends for the Pacers. Want to re-think that comment Dan Gilbert?
However, in Game 1 it wasn’t the Cavaliers defense that was dreadful, it was their offense. Cleveland generated far less than a point per possession — an awful 84 points per 100 possessions — and outside of an okay night from LeBron James and a hot J.R. Smith late, they were terrible on that end. Cavaliers not named LeBron or Smith shot 34 percent for the game. Jeff Green was a disaster.
LeBron didn’t do enough either, especially early in establishing a tone. Indiana started Bojan Bogdanovic on him, and LeBron didn’t take advantage of it, going 0-of-3 in the first quarter and working to set up teammates (which didn’t work out).
It’s just one game, and this is a LeBron James team. We should expect them to pick themselves up and perform much better in Game 2. However, we went into this postseason, looking at this reformed roster around LeBron, and were wondering who he could trust to step up when it mattered. Game 1 did not fill him or anyone with confidence. Larry Nance Jr. had moments, Kevin Love will be better, but that’s not enough. It wasn’t against the Pacers Sunday and it will not be in the postseason. Cleveland did not impress anyone for most of the season, and they did not flip a switch when the playoffs started.
• Yes, Ben Simmons is that good. As a rookie. Ben Simmons is not the Sixers best player right now — and that should scare the rest of the NBA. Because he’s insanely good — not just for a rookie, but period. In his playoff debut he was attacking on offense and setting up teammates (J.J. Redick had 23 second-half points for Philly when the pulled away from Miami), plus scoring himself when needed. and making defensive plays, too.
The key thing about that win and Simmons in Game 1 — it keeps the pressure off the Sixers to race Joel Embiid back. Embiid has cleared the league’s concussion protocol and can play in a mask, but he will sit out Game 2. Which is good. Remember Embiid played 63 games this season after playing 31 the season before and zero the two seasons before that. It’s a lot. Embiid feels ready and wants to get out there, but if I’m the Sixers I’m happy to rest him one more game, just to be abundantly cautious.
Simmons lets the Sixers do that.
• Kawhi Leonard speculation is running wild… probably for no good reason. There’s nothing to talk about with the Golden State/San Antonio series, the Spurs have no answers for Kevin Durant and the Warriors athleticism, all of which will make this a short series.
Instead, the focus has turned to why Kawhi Leonard was not on the bench supporting his teammates in Game 1 — as Stephen Curry was doing on the Warriors’ bench — and instead was working out in New York and talking to his doctors. Leonard is going to miss the entire postseason. Which has fueled speculation the Spurs and Leonard have grown distant, that he wants out and they will oblige, and other teams are trying to put together trade packages.
Put the brakes on all that.
Are other teams going to call San Antonio up and ask if he’s available? Of course. They should. Also, teams are going to talk to the Sixers this summer and try to see if Simmons and Embiid are available — this is what GMs do. They probe and test the market. It doesn’t mean a guy is going to get moved, or that a team is even considering it.
Remember what one exec told Sam Amick of the USA Today about the possibility of the Spurs trading Leonard: “It would be a mistake.” When have you known the Spurs to make that kind of mistake?
Here’s what to watch for: On July 1 (or soon after) do the Spurs offer Leonard the $219 million designated veteran max extension he is eligible for? (The deal Russell Westbrook and James Harden got.) The answer will probably be yes, Leonard will sign it, and next September when the Spurs come to camp Leonard and Gregg Popovich will lock arms and sing Kumbaya.
If the Spurs don’t make that offer, then things get interesting. Why didn’t they, what do they know? And will they listen to those trade calls? However, we’re a long way from that.
• Utah’s defense was best in the league, but it was Oklahoma City’s defense that won Game 1. What we all wanted to see in Game 1 of Oklahoma City vs. Utah was the showdown between Russell Westbrook’s attacking game and Rudy Gobert‘s defense in the paint. Gobert had an impact — in the regular season Westbrook got to the rim for 39.5 percent of his shots and took 31.4 percent of his shots from the midrange, but in Game 1 he was at the rim just eight times (32 percent of his shots, and hit only hit half of them) but took 40 percent of his shots in the midrange. Thing is Westbrook hit those shots (6-of-12). If his midrangers fall — and if the Jazz don’t find a better answer for Paul George — the Thunder offense will be fine.
However, that’s not the side of the ball that made it look like OKC could make this series a little easier than we thought.
In the regular season, the Thunder had a top-10 defense and it was on display Sunday — the Jazz had trouble getting penetration into the paint to break down OKC’s defense. Donovan Mitchell had a good game of 27 points on 22 shots, and he got into the paint some, but the Thunder made him really work for those buckets — with defenders other than PG13 on him. George shut down Joe Ingles. Meanwhile, the Thunder helped off Ricky Rubio all game long and dared him to shoot, giving the Spaniard all the space he could want, and he shot just 5-of-18.
How will Utah adjust in Game 2? I’d like to see them go at Carmelo Anthony more. Give Alec Burks more of a role, he was strong in Game 1. The Jazz are not a dominant offensive team, and their defense needs to tighten up (and eventually Westbrook will miss some from the midrange), but Utah has to find a way to get more buckets to have a real shot in this series.