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The Formula for the Celtics to Beat the Cavaliers Includes Factors Both Unlikely and Miraculous

Was Boston’s Game 3 upset replicable? Only if a series of improbable events keeps materializing at the same time.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night. Based on playoff seeding, the 111–108 result wasn’t an upset, as the Cavs finished with the second-best record in the conference while the Celtics finished with the best record. In reality, the Cavs entered the game with the longest winning streak in postseason history and had just beaten Boston by 44 points in Game 2 — a contest that saw the Celtics’ best player, Isaiah Thomas, suffer a season-ending hip injury. That’s why this non-upset was actually the largest upset in the history of the NBA playoffs:

How did it happen? And is Boston’s stunning performance replicable? Let’s consider the following things it took for this upset to come together.

LeBron James Had to Suck So Badly That Some People Thought He Was Throwing the Game

For a second, drop any pretenses that you have about LeBron, about how he’s Not Clutch or Not MJ or Not X. There’s nobody else here — just you and me. You don’t need to make a big show of criticizing him. And before you discuss how bad of a game he had Sunday, I need you to acknowledge that he is one of the best, most consistent players in basketball history.

That last point should be indisputable. In 2016 he led the NBA Finals in every major statistical category. Coming into Sunday night, he had tied a Michael Jordan record for consecutive 30-point playoff games (eight) and a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar record for consecutive 25-point games with a 50-percent-plus shooting percentage (nine). And LeBron would probably be posting better statistics if the Cavs needed him to; with the team enjoying so many blowouts, he was able to rest for lengthy portions of some fourth quarters. His performances in Cleveland’s record-setting 13-game playoff winning streak were incredible, with no exceptions.

So his 11-point performance, on 4-of-13 shooting, was stunning. He hasn’t scored 10 or fewer points in a regular-season game since 2007, about 800 games and two presidents ago. He didn’t score a point in Sunday’s final 16 minutes, and he tallied only an assist, a rebound, a steal, and two turnovers in the fourth quarter. It was the first time his team had ever blown a 20-point lead in a playoff game.

The outing was so uncharacteristic that some people assumed LeBron was having a bad night on purpose, apparently to spark a fire in his teammates before the Finals:

I don’t think LeBron’s clunker was part of a conspiracy, and the guy who has tried to race through the postseason as quickly as possible to secure maximum rest for a body with more than 1,200 NBA games on it seems unlikely to intentionally blow a game for motivational purposes. Call me ridiculous, but I think it’s possible that the really good player had a really bad game.

The Worst Shooter in the League Had to Shoot Well

OK, fine: Marcus Smart isn’t the worst shooter in the league. But he’s probably the worst shooter in the league to regularly attempt 3s. You could argue he’s the worst shooter in the history of the league ever to regularly launch from deep; by shooting 25.3 percent on 241 attempts from beyond the arc in 2015–16, he registered the worst percentage of anybody ever to attempt at least 200 3s in a season. In 2016–17 he shot 28.3 percent from 3, which is the 27th-worst mark of all time among qualified players. And this comes in an era when teams don’t tolerate bad shooting: Smart is the only person to register a bottom-30 season in the last two years, and he did it twice. Even with the benefit of a shorter 3-point arc in college, he never cracked 30 percent.

Smart had 10 attempts from deep in Sunday’s win. By career percentages, he could’ve been expected to hit two or three of those. He hit seven.

A Lot of Cavs Who Are Really Good at Shooting Had to Shoot Poorly

To follow up our Marcus Smart discussion: The Cavs went 14-of-22 from 3-point land in the first half, including a 7-of-10 performance from Kevin Love and a combined 6-of-6 from Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith. That was an unsustainable pace, sure, but Love, Irving, and Smith have historically been good from long range.

In the second half, Love, Irving, James, and Kyle Korver combined to go 0-for-10 from deep. Kyle Korver missed three 3s! Kyle freakin’ Korver! According to my stats, Korver hadn’t missed a three in an NBA game since the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 B.C.

The Cavs are still shooting 43 percent from 3 for the playoffs, which would set a record for the best mark in NBA history if sustained over the course of a season. Their best shooters couldn’t hit a single 3 in the second half.

Jonas Jerebko Had to Ball Out


Jerebko’s scoring average in the regular season was 3.8. He hadn’t played in four of the Celtics’ previous five games, with the exception being Game 2’s 44-point loss, when he got plenty of garbage time run. On Sunday he went 4-for-4 from the field with two 3s and 10 points, two off of his season high. He basically played a perfect game.

Only one person could have predicted this: the girl who sang the Jonas Jerebko song in 2009:

She even threw away the LeBron book! And the Celtics were down on Sunday by 17! Alas, we did not find out how Jerebko shoots free throws.

A Ball Had to Sit on a Rim for 1.6 Seconds

There are a lot of things to talk about with regard to Avery Bradley’s game-winning shot, like the perfect inbounds play that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens drew up, or the fact that Smith miscommunicated and chose to double-team Jae Crowder off the ball when he was supposed to guard Bradley, who got a wide-open look.

But let’s watch the replay of the shot again. The ball hits the rim with 2.1 seconds remaining:

It falls through the net with about half a second left on the clock:

And Cleveland didn’t regain possession until there were 0.1 seconds to go. Legally, the Cavs’ only method of tying the game in this scenario would’ve been to tip in a 3-point shot, which is practically impossible.

If Bradley would’ve shot the ball directly into the hoop instead of shooting it off the front rim, off the back of the rim, off the back of the rim again, off the front of the rim again, and then into the hoop, the Cavs — who, again, are shooting the ball in these playoffs at a torrid rate — would have had more than a second to try to send Game 3 into overtime. Instead, they weren’t allowed to get off a shot. I don’t have any statistics on how often 3-pointers spend 1.5 seconds bouncing around the rim before going through the net, but I don’t think it happens often.

Like this shot, the Celtics’ Game 3 win was incredible. Without their star, against a behemoth, they rallied against improbable odds, with several randos being brilliant while a brilliant player looked like a rando. This was a performance to cherish, not one to expect three more times.

In my opinion, it is good when we have close basketball games in the NBA playoffs. I’m also not holding my breath for another one before the Finals.