We learned that without LeBron James playing his best, the Cavaliers turn into an offensive pumpkin really fast.
We learned that Marcus Smart is good for one "unbelievable turn of events 3-point outing" game every series.
We learned that Jonas Jerebko, a stretch four with athleticism and physicality, probably should have been playing more minutes for these Celtics, who needed his rebounding and shot-making ability.
We learned that Avery Bradley continues to be the kind of guy who guards the best backcout weapon on the other team, makes plays, plays tough and can hit the big shot when counted on.
And we learned that these Celtics are different without Isaiah Thomas.
Are they better?
Well, look, that's complicated. It's not a "yes," because Thomas was sensational this season. He is going to finish fifth on a lot of voters' MVP ballots. He has proven he's one of the best scorers in the league. He's phenomenal.
But in this matchup? In the playoffs? With this roster?
Thomas going down changed things. That doesn't mean it changed them for better or worse. It changed the dynamics of the matchup, and how that changed things wound up benefiting the Celtics. Sure, you can chalk this up to a random night where the Cavs went cold and Marcus Smart became Ray Allen for 48 minutes, and there's some truth to that. The odds of this performance being sustainable, repeatable, are low. There was wackiness in this game, the way there always is when things go haywire to this degree.
However, from the very get-go, the Celtics played differently in this game. They pushed the pace, got into their sets quicker, didn't bog down with their superstar dribbling the air out of the ball. They had to move the ball because no one was going to go ISO. And defensively, the difference was wild. Cleveland was insanely hot in the first half, unsustainably so, and still, the way the Celtics played was drastically different. They weren't facing huge mismatches with a 5-foot-9 guard having to defend guys three times his size, or, worse, having to over-help because of the panic that has caused all season.
With Thomas out, the Celtics had a 93.6 defensive rating in the second half of Game 3. Compare that to Game 2, when they had a 132 defensive rating.
It's night and day. The ball moved more and the Celtics kept moving it, getting ahead of Cleveland' rotations. Yes, it took outlier performances that probably won't hold, but it shows a way that Boston was able to play that sets things up in an interesting manner. There's time for another day to debate trading Thomas, and making that move after one game would be ridiculous. If the Cavaliers blow out Boston in Games 4 and 5, the whole idea looks pitiful. But then, even if that happens, it won't change what we saw here.
Part of this is also what happens when a star player is out. We saw this with Kawhi Leonard against the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. Knowing a star player is out changes how you approach the game. That the Warriors won in such impressive fashion in Game 2 in the Western Conference finals should actually be more impressive, but even then you saw a bit of a letdown, even in a win, in Game 3. It's just harder to get up for such games. We have seen that in the regular season time and time again.
So now all eyes turn to Game 4. If the Cavaliers win, it'll be a simple story of how Game 3 was a blip, but the Celtics kept them honest. But if they can get an outlier game from Al Horford, one like he has had in these playoffs before facing the Cavs, if they can replicate the way they played without Thomas, they might have a shot.
A team giving the ball to a 5-9 point guard trying to create against top-level, long defenders with Tristan Thompson waiting at the rim? Good luck.
A smart team constantly moving the ball, finding blown rotations and sharing the ball constantly? That's a model that can have success if the Cavaliers aren't totally locked in.
It took the most surprising, and truly, honestly, unfortunate turn of of events for it to happen, but the Celtics are a different team against the Cavaliers without Isaiah Thomas. Maybe not better. But in the playoffs, where all that matters is matchups, maybe different, just in this case, is a little bit better.
All of a sudden, the Eastern Conference finals, finally, mercifully, are interesting.