Call it The Mother’s Day Massacre if you want. The bottom line is this. The defending Eastern Conference champions Cleveland Cavaliers were blown out the gym with offense, defense, creativity and toughness. The Boston Celtics were exactly who the Boston Celtics have been all playoffs long- at least at home- and the LeBron-ettes had no answer for their depth and ball movement. They didn’t seem ready for the moment and like it or not, when LeBron has an off game, the Cavs are in no man’s land. They don’t have a second creator to carry the team during LeBron lulls. Their iso game is totally dependent upon him. The three ball in a frozen tundra is a bad sign the Cavs better hope was a one game hiccup. Otherwise, this is going to get ugly.
Cleveland is capable of winning four games in this series but not four games in a row because their defense is catastrophic. They defend with offense. They make buckets from behind the three point line forcing the other team to keep up with their scoring. Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver defend at C-level. Plus the Celtics are just more athletic. The Cavs iso game can’t blow by the Celtics defenders and on defense the Celtics don’t have to double LeBron all the time. They can stay home. Which means the Cavs have to be a high shot making team or they have to exert a lot energy on the defensive end, something they haven’t done all year.
Cleveland’s defensive numbers in the playoffs are trash. They are the worst field goal percentage defense. They are the worst at steals. They are the third worst rebounding team. They have blocked 45 shots in the playoffs. The Celtics have blocked 61 shots. The 2018 playoff teams that had a defensive rating equal to the Cavs or worse all lost in the first round. They didn’t have a LeBron James to erase a negative.
The Celtics with the kids are a more athletic and more skilled team than the Cavaliers and those that believe they can win the series are betting on Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown having big games but it all comes down to can Al Horford play big on both ends. When Horford is throwback to Atlanta Hawks Horford the Cavs may just have to rotate a lot of Tristan Thompson because Kevin Love is going to make too many mistakes trying to cover Al Horford all over the court. And that is the essential problem.
Everyone knows what Cleveland’s game is. Rotate the ball around the perimeter and make shots. LeBron morphing into triple double LeBron. Get to the line early and often. That’s how they win. All eyes on #23. More complicated are the Celtics. They can eek out a win in a variety of ways and you just don’t know who is going to be the offensive star. Yesterday it was Al Horford and Marcus Morris. On Tuesday, who knows?
That is the perfection about the Celtics in two parts. One, they have zero fear of LeBron. They aren’t the weak Raptors. And two, they have so many talented (let’s count the lottery picks: Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum) players who can score, pass, create, iso, not iso, defend with their lateral quickness.
Ty Lue isn’t Brad Stevens. He isn’t a master schemer. He plays chess with LeBron and hopes it’s a good day for the group.
Perhaps it was a massacre on that binary level. The facts though. Last year, LeBron went into Boston for the first two games and cleaned their clock. Won game one by 13. Won game two by 44. Cavs victory in 5 games. The last time LeBron lost Game 1 of an Eastern Conference Final he was wearing a Miami Heat uniform. He lost game one to the Pacers by 11 points, a game in which the Heat team shot 26% from three. (They shot 15.4% from three on Sunday). In Game 2 of that Pacers series, the Heat shot 40% from three and won the series in 6. That was LeBron’s last year in Miami, the last Heat Eastern Conference Finals.
History may not repeat itself. The Celtics lack a superstar but are a gritty defensive team with offense and great athleticism. The Cavaliers are inconsistent. Game 1 is Game 1. All the clichés apply. LeBron James has lost the first two games of a conference final and won. It happened 11 years ago against Detroit when he was 23 years old.
Different world. Different Boston. Harder challenge.