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.
Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.
Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:
“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.
Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”
Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.
From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.
Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.
When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.
But that’s not necessarily true of his Cavaliers teammates. And it’s almost certainly not true of their opponent in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Celtics won Games 1 and 2 in Boston, but they now must travel to Cleveland for Game 3 Saturday and Game 4 Monday. The Celtics have (unexpectedly) proven themselves to be a strong team this postseason, but they’ve done most of the heavy lifting at home.
Boston is 7-0 at home and 1-4 on the road this postseason. That 80-percentage-point difference between home and road record is tied for the sixth-largest of all-time (minimum: eight games):
That could just be a small-sample issue. The Celtics have played only three different opponents and nine games at home and five games and two different opponents on the road.
But there’s also a belief (which could be self-fulfilling, especially given the early results) that young players are especially prone to large home-road splits. And Boston is relying on plenty of young players – notably Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier.
Marcus Smart, who was all over the court in the Celtics’ Game 2 win , didn’t take any offense to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue’s comment that the Celtics have “shown they haven’t played that well on the road.”
“We haven’t played well. We know that and understand that,” Smart said. “We understand that other teams see that and try to exploit it. But that’s the beauty about this game. It just takes one game. You never know. Things change. Our confidence is high. Who knows?”
The Celtics are in great shape. They’re up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals with a young rotation. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier are all stepping up. Al Horford is reminding everyone he’s a star, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will get the chance next year.
The Hornets are in terrible shape. They missed the playoffs for the second straight season, and they’re so capped out, they’re already facing a luxury-tax crunch for next season. Even with Kemba Walker, they appear stuck in mediocrity.
But both teams could have been in a middle ground if Charlotte accepted Boston’s draft-night offer in 2015.
Wanting to get Justise Winslow, the Celtics reportedly offered six picks – including four potential first-rounders – for the No. 9 pick. The Hornets rejected the deal and took Frank Kaminsky, which has earned them plenty of criticism ever since.
But maybe we should save some admonishment for the Pistons (who drafted Stanley Johnson No. 8) and Heat (who drafted Winslow No. 10). Apparently, they also received Boston’s walloping offer.
I know the Pistons passed on it. Whatever it was eight, nine, 10. It was Pistons passed. They offered the same thing. They wouldn’t even talk about it, because they wanted to take Stanley Johnson.
The ninth pick was Charlotte. Jordan couldn’t figure it out in time and finally didn’t do it, so they passed on those four picks, one of which would have been Jaylen Brown. Another one would have been Rozier.
And then the 10th pick, they called Riley, and Riley just laughed and hung up on them. Riley was like, “No, I’m taking Justise Winslow. I’ll talk to you guys later.”
It hasn’t been revealed precisely which picks the Celtics offered. They had many stockpiled. A good bet is it including the No. 16 pick in 2015, which they used on Terry Rozier. I’m not sure whether Simmons is reporting or just supposing Boston offered the 2016 Nets pick (which became Jaylen Brown).
There’s enough variability in the picks and protections not to know just how good this offer was. But, even near the plausible minimum, it was pretty darn good.
To some degree, it’s just logical that if the Celtics wanted Winslow that badly, they would have made the same offer to every team in that range. But Danny Ainge admitted after the draft he might have gotten carried away. It seemed possible he didn’t go that far with Detroit on the clock and came to his senses with Miami picking. Alas.
The Pistons, Hornets and Heat are all locked into expensive rosters with merely moderate upsides. Stanley Johnson, Frank Kaminsky and even Justise Winslow – the Celtics’ dream selection – top out at fine. Detroit, Charlotte and Miami almost certainly would have been better off accepting this trade.
Boston was fortunate none did.
For a while, the Pistons and Heat were fortunate attention was placed squarely on the Hornets passing on the offer. That ought to change.