No one thought the Celtics could beat the Cavs. The hope was that they could at least keep it close. That didn’t happen in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, a 117–104 victory for Cleveland that was never competitive. The Cavs raced out to an 11-point first-quarter lead, and the deficit didn’t get below double digits the rest of the game. Boston, as the higher seed, doesn’t have much time to figure things out. If the series goes to Cleveland with Boston down 2–0, there probably won’t be a Game 5. The Celtics came back from losing their first two games at home against the Bulls in the first round, but that’s not likely to happen against a Cavs team that is clicking on every cylinder.
Cleveland didn’t show any signs of rust after having the past nine days off following its second-round sweep of the Raptors, and all that time off allowed Tyronn Lue to shorten his rotation in Game 1. LeBron James played 42 of the first 45 minutes of the game, coming out only for a short breather at the start of the second quarter, and Boston had no answer for him. The Celtics were able to beat the Wizards in the second round primarily on the strength of their bench, but the Cavs’ ability to keep one of their stars in at all times to anchor their second unit means they won’t have any prolonged offensive droughts in the series.
All of the problems Washington exposed in the second round, from Boston’s lack of secondary playmakers next to Isaiah Thomas to its ineffective starting lineup and lack of size upfront, were on full display in Game 1. The difference is the quality of competition: Unlike in the previous two rounds, the Celtics don’t have any margin for error. They played better in the second half, but it’s hard to know how much of that was the adjustments that Brad Stevens made, and how much was Cleveland taking its foot off the gas. Here are five things to watch headed into Game 2 on Friday, which could be Boston’s last stand:
LeBron Looked Like Shaq Out There
LeBron has had his way with the Celtics over the past few years, and that physical dominance continued in Game 1, which he finished with 38 points on 14-of-24 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists, and two steals. It was the closest thing to the way Shaquille O’Neal used to dominate teams in the early 2000s: LeBron was physically superior to every player in the Celtics rotation by a significant margin, and he wasn’t going to bail them out by settling for anything other than dunks and layups. Take a look at his shot chart from the first quarter:
Boston is one of the smallest teams in the NBA, and the Celtics don’t have the size on the perimeter or up front to prevent LeBron from living at the rim. Cleveland does a great job of spreading the floor around LeBron, forcing the defense to either live with playing him one-on-one or sending double-teams and giving up open 3s. It was the same dilemma that Shaq and the Lakers offered opposing defenses when they were winning three straight titles, except opponents could at least count on Shaq missing his free throws. LeBron is a career 74 percent free throw shooter who went 9-for-11 from the line on Wednesday.
Jae Crowder started the game on LeBron, and he wasn’t able to offer even token defensive resistance, nor could Avery Bradley or Marcus Smart. The Celtics tried to switch every screen involving LeBron in the first half, in an effort to stay at home on the Cavs shooters, and the results were comical. There’s nothing big men like Al Horford or Kelly Olynyk can do against LeBron when they are left on an island against him, and it didn’t take long for him to start showing off. Olynyk, the hero of their Game 7 win over Washington, couldn’t even stay on the floor against Cleveland. This is just disrespectful:
The Cavs Completely Ignored the Celtics’ Shooters
This series was supposed to be a duel between LeBron and Isaiah Thomas, but that can happen only if the Celtics star has the same opportunity to go one-on-one against defenders. Cleveland continued its strategy from the second round against Toronto, when the Cavs trapped DeMar DeRozan whenever he came off screens, daring the rest of his team to knock down open 3s and beat them in four-on-three situations. The Celtics’ supporting cast wasn’t able to make the Cavs pay in Game 1. They went 12-for-38 from 3 (31.6 percent), but most of their makes came when the game was already out of reach in the second half.
One counter that Stevens might try in Game 2 is setting fewer screens for Thomas and having him go at his defender in isolation situations, especially if Kyrie Irving stays on him. The Cavs point guard has never been a particularly effective individual defender, and Thomas should be able to get open looks against him if he has enough space to operate in. Screening for him just adds another defender who can take the ball out of his hands, and Boston needs its best player to explode offensively to have any chance of keeping the series close. These are the type of plays the Celtics need more of:
Kevin Love Got His Chance to Shine
Love averaged only 12 points a game on 44.7 percent shooting against the Raptors, and the Cavs came into Game 1 determined to involve him more on offense. He rewarded their faith in him with 32 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 9-of-16, including 6-of-9 from the 3-point line. Love is a good long-range shooter, but he hasn’t shot over 38 percent from 3 in the past six seasons and he’s not in the same class as 3-point specialists like Channing Frye and Kyle Korver, both of whom shot above 40 percent from beyond the arc this season. When Love catches fire, there’s not much defenses can do to slow down the Cavs.
The most interesting twist came at the start of the second quarter, when Love became the primary option on offense with LeBron and Kyrie on the bench. According to NBA Wowy, the Cavs have used Love in that role for only 141 minutes this season. LeBron, in contrast, has been the lone member of the Big Three on the floor for 695 minutes, while Kyrie has played 611 minutes without his two costars. Cleveland has an offensive rating of 111.4 with Love by himself: with four shooters around him, he can use his size (6-foot-10 and 251 pounds) to bully smaller defenders like Smart on the block:
Love’s primary role for the Cavs is to stretch out the defense, but it’s important to remind defenses of what he can do with the ball from time to time. Love and Tristan Thompson can both punish teams when they go small against them, which is a big problem for the Celtics. Boston is at its best when it can go small with only one big man on the floor, and forcing the Celtics to account for both Love and Thompson creates a pick-your-poison scenario. Horford can guard only one of them at a time, and the other should have a big advantage in this series.
Tristan Thompson Dominated on the Glass
It’s easy for Thompson to get overlooked next to all of Cleveland’s star power, but his ability to switch screens on defense and stay in front of smaller players on the perimeter, as well as to create extra possessions on the offensive glass, is a huge part of what makes the Cavs so dangerous. Thompson is the only player in their rotation who doesn’t shoot 3s, but he’s still able to force defenses to respect him by rolling hard to the rim and being active in the paint. Don’t guard Thompson and he will get free lanes to the offensive boards:
The Celtics started the game with Horford on Love, which left the player formerly known as Amir Johnson on Thompson. Johnson has been terrible all playoffs long, and he lasted only five minutes in Game 1 before getting pulled. Guarding Thompson wasn’t a priority for Boston, and he made them pay, finishing with 20 points, on 7-of-7 shooting, and nine rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. It got so bad Stevens dusted the mothballs off reserve center Tyler Zeller, even though he has played only 42 minutes in the postseason.
Jaylen Brown Came to Play
The Celtics rookie was one of their only bright spots on Wednesday, as he continued his strong play from Game 7 against Washington with 10 points and nine rebounds on 5-of-7 shooting in Game 1. He was the only Celtic who appeared in the first half who finished the game with a positive plus-minus (plus-4 in 20 minutes). There wasn’t any other player in Boston’s rotation who was able to bother LeBron even slightly on defense. Brown is their best athlete, and he can stay in front of LeBron and force him to shoot the ball from the perimeter:
On the other side of the ball, Brown was able to make hay against Korver, the Cavs’ worst perimeter defender by a significant margin. He got around Korver off the dribble, and the Celtics found some success by using him as the screener for Thomas and forcing Korver into the pick-and-roll. Korver is shooting an eye-popping 48.5 percent from 3 on 5.7 attempts per game, and opposing teams have to punish him on defense to make up for some of the points he’s going to score on the other end of the floor.
Going forward, the Celtics probably have to start Brown, even though it forces Crowder on either Thompson or Love. It’s not like they have much chance of slowing down the Cavs regardless: They need to have as much firepower on the floor as possible to make Cleveland pay for overloading defensively on Thomas. At the very least, this series could be a great opportunity for Brown to grow and gain confidence. If he can play well against LeBron, it’s something he can build on for next season, whether he is in Boston or used as a trade chip to acquire Paul George or Jimmy Butler.