The Boston Celtics fought hard for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference as the regular season dwindled down. In a matter of minutes on Wednesday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers proved that seeding matters little when you have LeBron James and things are firing on nearly all cylinders.
The Cavaliers led Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals wire-to-wire as they cruised to a 117-104 victory that was much more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Cleveland trapped Isaiah Thomas and forced a turnover on the very first play of the game, setting in motion how the remainder of the game played out. For Boston to have a chance in this series, Thomas needs to be dominant. Thomas was dreadful in the opener, going 7-for-19 with 17 points and four turnovers. He was blocked by the rim on a fastbreak in the second quarter, exposed defensively multiple times and was never able to get in rhythm.
Brad Stevens hid Thomas defensively against the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards in the first two rounds, but the Cavaliers have too many options.
The Celtics had a 105.5 defensive rating in the regular season (12th) and ranked third in the playoffs entering Game 1 at the very same number, but once again the current competition is at a different level. The Cavaliers had a 127.3 offensive rating in the win.
Stevens admitted prior to the game that he wanted to avoid scrambling defensively, leading to more open shots and difficulty rebounding. There was a lot of scrambling and while that made it difficult for the Celtics to compete, the Cavaliers didn’t even take full advantage of how often the Boston defense was off balance.
The Cavaliers missed a number of open threes and had 12 offensive rebounds on 42 misses.
“I don’t even think we played that great tonight,” James said after going for 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on just 24 shoots. “We definitely didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’re capable of shooting. I know Kyle [Korver] had three or four very, very good looks that he missed. The energy and the effort and the mindset was where it needed to be.”
The lack of a rim protector was something the Celtics were able to get away with during the regular season and the early rounds, but without anyone providing resistance inside James was able to get to the basket at will.
“He made it very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us, no matter who was on him,” said Stevens, who tried at least seven different defenders on James, but resisted double-teaming until the third quarter.
“We’ll have to adjust a little bit,” Stevens admitted. “Now there are certain things -- he’s a pretty physical guy. He’s got some physical advantages on people, but we need to do a better job in a lot of ways. I don’t always think it’s the guy that’s guarding necessarily; it’s what guys are doing around him. This is easier said than done because those guys are all guarding shooters. So who do you help off of? Once we started helping a little bit, Love goes off in the third quarter.”
A lot went right for the Cavaliers with James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson combining for 90 points on 63.8% shooting, but the rest of the Cavaliers shot poorly. Irving, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye will all be more productive going forward. It’s less a ‘pick your poison’ proposition for Stevens than it is a three-course menu of options for Ty Lue.
It doesn’t help when LeBron seems prepared for anything and everything the Celtics throw at him.
“I pretty much know how many guys I’m going to see throughout the course of a game. The guy that’s going to start on me; the guy that’s going to shift on me if there’s a sub. If they go small or if they go big. For me, the only thing on my mind is how we can execute if I can drive and get my shooters a shot or if I can get something off a double team, in the paint or if we can get to the free throw line. It’s not an individual matchup for me, no matter who is in front of me. My mind is always racing on how I can make it the best possession at that particular time.”
It was a quick turnaround for the Celtics, who beat the Wizards in Game 7 less than 48 hours before taking on the Cavaliers, but if they are to have any chance of making the road back to the NBA Finals tough for the Cavaliers they’ll have to be more poised in Game 2.
Cleveland was the aggressor from the tip and the Celtics were out of sorts offensively and defensively for the first three quarters. Stevens was left searching for answers in real time, extending the rotation to 10 players by midway through the second quarter. Nothing worked until late when he went extremely small with Jae Crowder as the de facto five. At that point, the game had long been decided.
The Celtics will make adjustments for Game 2, but so will the Cavaliers.