NBA Playoffs: LeBron James’ Cavs don’t just beat you, they sap you of hope
The Celtics made some good adjustments, but they weren't nearly enough
BOSTON -- In retrospect, Al Horford sounded charmingly optimistic. Before the swift knockout punch that was Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, the Boston Celtics center discussed the difficulty of defending the Cleveland Cavaliers. His coach, Brad Stevens, had said that you're "toast" as soon as LeBron James makes your defense scramble in transition or the pick-and-roll. Horford let out a little laugh when informed of the comment.
"It's tough," Horford said. "That's easier said than done. I mean, you know, they pose those problems as a team. They can really spread you out and pick you apart. For us, it's just making sure that we're able to individually be able to guard the ball. And obviously be there to help -- if we need to scramble, we'll scramble. But yeah, it's easier said than done. That's what makes them so tough. We feel like we have the group and we have depth that we can do a good job of that."
Already, it is fair to ask whether the Celtics still feel that way. Like they have for the entire playoffs, James and the Cavaliers made X's and O's questions seem moot. Boston fell down by double digits about halfway through the opening period of the opening game, with James either cruising toward the paint or patiently backing his way down there. Not once did he look uncomfortable; not once did his team look out of control.
To their credit, the Celtics didn't give up. After trailing by as many as 28 points, they cut it to 17 before the end of the third thanks largely to the effort of reserves Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. There was palpable futility in that effort, though, as they never made Cleveland sweat. The defending champions went super-small in the final frame, with James at center, and they skated to a 117-104 victory, improving to 9-0 in these playoffs.
James and the Cavs have a way of simplifying things. They made it obvious that the Indiana Pacers have not surrounded Paul George with a good enough supporting cast. They made it clear that the Toronto Raptors are more than a couple of tweaks away from being a contender. In just one game, they showed Boston what it is up against: It cannot let James bully defenders and get easy baskets in the paint. It cannot let Tristan Thompson own the offensive glass. It cannot let Kevin Love take in-rhythm 3s. The trouble, of course, is the reason that Horford laughed at his locker: Saying it is much different than doing it.
With the exception of Love, who scored 32 points and went 6-for-9 from 3-point range, Cleveland didn't even shoot particularly well from 3-point range, but it scored an absurd 126.6 points per 100 possessions anyway. Even more impressively, the Cavs made another elite regular-season offense look overmatched and overwhelmed. The Celtics scored just 39 points in the first half, and Isaiah Thomas had to fight for just about every one of his 17 points on 7-for-19 shooting.
Stevens quickly shelved starting big man Amir Johnson and went with Kelly Olynyk and, later, Gerald Green, in order to space the floor. This paid dividends on offense, but it's probably a stretch to think that this adjustment will change Cleveland's calculus. James finished with 38 points on 14-for-24 shooting, plus seven assists and nine rebounds in 42 minutes. When he hit a high-arcing fadeaway over Green in the fourth quarter, it felt like his lefty turnarounds against Toronto: He was challenging himself.
After the defeat, the Celtics were saying all the right things. Stevens said he was "really encouraged by the last 18 minutes of the game." Horford said this was just one game, and they need to have urgency and energy at the beginning of Game 2. Avery Bradley said that "it's all about how we respond."
Boston is indeed known for being resilient. It would like to be known as a team that thrives when counted out. Before the conference finals even started, Jae Crowder took this underdog mentality to a farcical extreme, stating that nobody believed the top seed could come back from a 2-0 deficit in the first round against the Chicago Bulls or topple the Washington Wizards in the semifinals. This is flatly false, but the Celtics are certainly now being overlooked, as there is not much evidence to suggest that they can truly test the Cavs. If they really do still believe in themselves, if they still have hope, that will only be evident in their play on Friday, not in any of their quotes before then.
In his coaches meeting, Stevens told his staff that he thinks James is "a lot better" than he was when Stevens came into the league three years ago, as hard as that is to comprehend. In his press conference, he then outlined the big conundrum with the Cavs: Do you double James and Love, risking open 3-pointers and offensive rebounds? Do you stay at home on them, allowing them to make plays one-on-one? Then, sounding a bit resigned about his two imperfect options, he unwittingly channeled Horford.
"It's all easier said than done," Stevens said. "But we gotta figure out our best avenue quickly."
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