BOSTON (CBS) — “I don’t even think we played that great.”
After LeBron James was done trolling the Celtics on the floor, he continued his victory lap at the podium. And he had every right to do so, after a dominating performance in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cavs didn’t play great for 48 minutes, but they didn’t really have to after building a cushy 28-point lead late in the third quarter. They eased up a bit over the final 15 minutes and the Celtics got as close as 11, but the reality is Cleveland cruised to a Game 1 victory, stole home court advantage from Boston and set the tone for the series going forward.
The Celtics repeatedly said the Cavaliers threw the first punch, and they never really answered that strike. They’ve vowed to flip the script in Friday night’s Game 2.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when this now must-win Game 2 tips off in Boston:
Maybe Don’t Start Like A Car Stuck In The Mud?
This probably sounds like a broken record, but the Celtics can’t afford to dig a giant hole in the first half. It may have worked against the Wizards, once, but it certainly is not going to work against the Cavaliers.
“I just think that they were the more aggressive team with more energy and they got us down from the beginning. We can’t allow a team of their caliber to build a lead like that in the first quarter,” Al Horford said after Wednesday’s defeat. “We fell behind just like that against Washington, it’s an uphill battle and we just got to be better to start the game.”
Boston had a nice built-in excuse for a stagnant start on Wednesday, given they were just coming off an emotional Game 7 victory a few nights before. Meanwhile, the Cavs enjoyed over a week of downtime while they watched the C’s and Wizards battle it out. But that isn’t going to fly in Game 2, and they need to go out and actually throw that first punch if they want any chance at tying the series.
A lot of that will fall on Isaiah Thomas, who missed eight of his first nine shots. “Mighty IT” has to be better on Friday night.
It was only an 11-point deficit by the end of the first quarter, but a 12-0 run in the second quarter ballooned the Cleveland lead to 48-25 and that was about it for the Celtics. Boston’s 14-5 run to end the third quarter was nice, but when you’re down 28 points that kind of run doesn’t matter much.
Maybe the Celtics can build off the fact that they won the second half 65-56, but that was when the Cavs were done toying with them and knew they’d be picking up a victory. Had Boston gotten off to a better start, maybe that second half would have meant a little bit more.
The 20-year-old rookie was one of the only bright spots for the Celtics in their Game 1 defeat, playing 20 impressive minutes off the Boston bench (minus that one time he looked completely lost on defense). Brad Stevens threw eight different defenders at LeBron, and Brown was the only one who didn’t look fazed by the task. He also attacked the basket when the rest of the team was fixed on their usual long-range assault, finishing the night with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and nine rebounds. He may have been able to inject that much-needed energy had a pair of dunks not been called back by his teammates getting whistled for offensive fouls.
Stevens said he envisions Brown playing “a large role” throughout the series, so a potential start in Game 2 may not be out of the question. Even if the Celtics can’t generate much as a team, it’s promising that the youngest player on the roster appears ready to shine when it matters most.
Part of Boston’s second half success was the small lineup they trotted out. A combo of Marcus Smart/Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Gerald Green, Jae Crowder/Jaylen Brown and Al Horford had some of the most productive minutes for the C’s.
The Smart-Bradley-Brown-Green-Horford lineup played just two minutes together, but scored nine points and finished a plus-six. Change out Crowder for Brown and Thomas for Smart and that grouping put up 12 points in four minutes, and was a plus-three.
Crowder thrived in the second half and finished his night with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists, his best showing in a disappointing postseason. Green also provided a scoring punch off the bench, pouring in 11 points in 14 minutes. The Celtics as a whole shot 58 percent in the second half, while the Cavs shot just 41 percent after hitting 56 percent of their shots in the first half.
Maybe those small lineups were the difference, or maybe it was a bit of fool’s gold as Stevens alluded to postgame. But it’s very likely we see more those smaller lineups going forward, and maybe even to start the game rather than end it.
Limit The Damage On The Glass
You’d think that going small wouldn’t help the Celtics in the rebounding department, but it actually did on Wednesday night. Before fouling out after busting his backside for 21 minutes, Marcus Smart gave Tristan Thompson fits in the second half.
After pulling down five offensive boards in the first half, a frustrated Thompson had just one in the second half, and most of that was because Smart was pestering him. That matchup won’t work over a full game, but it’s something Stevens can keep in his back pocket for when he needs it most.
Of course Thompson isn’t the only one who can pull down rebounds. Kevin Love had his best playoff game in a Cavs uniform with 12 rebounds to go with his 31 points, and James can swoop in and muscle a board with the best of them.
The war on the glass wasn’t as lopsided in the end, with the Cavs holding a 53-51 advantage, but they doubled up the Celtics 28-14 in the first half. It wasn’t until the Celtics started corralling rebounds (or the Cavs let up a bit) that the Celtics started to make their brief comeback.
Tune in to Celtics-Cavaliers Game 2 on 98.5 The Sports Hub, with pregame coverage beginning at 8pm!