BOSTON (CBS) – Offense has always been a weakness for the Celtics when facing elite NBA teams during the Brad Stevens era. Isaiah Thomas helped the franchise make some inroads in that department in the past calendar year, but the team’s flaws were exposed against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round sweep during the 2015 postseason.
Danny Ainge made some modest improvements to the roster since that last matchup against Cleveland, but Tuesday’s rematch against Cleveland served as a cruel reminder about just how far the team has to go to hang with the East’s elite on the offensive end.
In front of a capacity crowd at the TD Garden, the Celtics built a modest six-point lead at halftime against the Cavs before LeBron James and company turned up the heat on the defensive end. Boston’s end game totals reflected that increased pressure, as the Celtics managed to score a meager 31 points in the second half, shot a season-low 32 percent from the field and were bogged down by playing at a turtle like pace.
Cleveland’s immense size in the frontcourt with Timofey Mozgov, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson helped to keep the Celtics at bay around the paint. However, Brad Stevens believed that their presence was not the reason the Celtics had trouble putting the ball in the hole.
“Their size is going to be a factor and so we can’t try to go through them,” Stevens said. “You’ve got to go around them. You’ve got to create a better pace about you. And we just didn’t – I felt like in the first half we didn’t have much pace. We didn’t have much movement. We had that one stretch where we had some good cutting and some good playing from the second unit at the end of the first/early second. But other than that, I thought we were – for whatever reason we were in mud a little bit on offense.”
Jae Crowder echoed Stevens’ attitude while noting that the team tried to put a little too much on their shoulders individually, instead of playing as a unit.
“They’re not the biggest team in the league we’re gonna face,” Crowder explained. “But they played hard on the defensive end and we got real stagnant with the ball. Tried to make a play one-on-one every time, so we have to get back to the basics on that.”
Some believed that one-on-one play could have been a product of drama surrounding the showdown between J.R. Smith and Crowder as well as potential bad blood stemming from the injury Kevin Love suffered at the hands of Kelly Olynyk last postseason. However, Avery Bradley was adamant the team playing hyped up was not a major factor in the performance. Instead, the shooting guard simplified the team’s problems.
“I wouldn’t say we were pressing,” Bradley said. “I just don’t think we were moving the ball as well as we usually do. Against a team like that with a player like LeBron, we know how he plays defense, you have to move the ball to both sides and make sure everyone touches it so we can get the best shot. And we weren’t doing that.”
Until the Celtics get some scoring help via trade or free agency, the ugly home loss against Cleveland showed how large of a talent gap remains between the two franchises. For Boston to have any chance against the Cavs moving forward, they have to work more like a unit offensively and play to their strengths.
With Kyrie Irving returning to the lineup for Cleveland soon, the defending East champions are an obstacle that aren’t going away anytime soon. Tuesday’s performance served as a reminder that the Celtics remain a ways ahead from solving that riddle.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.