By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — After a lengthy wait that felt like an eternity, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals is finally here.
The Celtics are up 2-0 on the Cavaliers with the series now shifting to Cleveland for the next two games, and Boston can inch closer to the NBA Finals if they can steal a win in enemy territory. With the Cavaliers playing as soft as a roll of Charmin in the first two games, that doesn’t seem too unlikely for the confident Celtics, even with their road struggles this postseason.
The Celtics are back to being underdogs for Game 3, with the Cavs entering the game as 6.5 point favorites. The Celtics were underdogs throughout their series with the 76ers and that worked out pretty well for them, so essentially they have the Cavaliers right where they want them.
That being said, LeBron James is still wearing a Cavs uniform and when James has been down 2-0 in a playoff series, his teams are 4-2 in Game 3s. His only losses have come in the NBA Finals, and he’s 3-0 in that situation against Eastern Conference foes.
Home teams have also fared pretty well this postseason, touting a 49-19 record for a stout winning percentage of .721. So simple math and LeBron’s history point to the Cavaliers winning these next two games.
But nothing has been conventional about this Celtics’ run, so no one will be shocked if they take one — or both — of these next two games. Here’s what we’ll be watching for when Game 3 tips off Saturday evening.
How Do Cavs Respond?
The Cavs were blown out in Game 1 and then quit in Game 2 after letting a first-half lead slip away. It was an embarrassing display of basketball for a franchise that has been to the last three NBA Finals.
They have to be better at home, right? The Cavaliers are 5-1 at The Q this postseason, and their defensive rating sits at 105 in Cleveland compared to 112 elsewhere. That’s big, considering the Celtics are 9-1 this postseason when they hit the 100-point mark. They are, however, averaging just 95 points on the road.
Defense will be the key for Cleveland, and Ty Lue is begging them to get physical on that end of the floor. Chances are the Cavs will be “gooning up” Game 3 any chance they can get. The Celtics will be ready, because Brad Stevens always has then prepared for everything.
But Cleveland also needs someone other than LeBron to score. Kevin Love stepped up a bit in Game 2 with 22 points and 15 rebounds and Kyle Korver chipped in with a quartet of threes. After that, it was a whole bunch of awfulness from the Cavaliers, from George Hill’s three points (on just four shots!) and one assist to J.R. Smith’s 0-for from the field (he missed all seven of his shots). For the series, Hill has just eight points in 61 minutes while Smith has hit just two of his 16 shots.
To put it lightly, the Cavaliers were pathetic for long stretches in Games 1 and 2. The Boston defense has lulled them into standing still on offense, hoping LeBron will continue to do it all for them. The Boston defense has been super physical on LeBron which has not allowed him to do it all for the Cavs.
The Celtics have shown lots of fight this series while the Cavaliers have spent most of their time pointing fingers and rolling their eyes at each other. We’ll see if that changes for the Cavaliers now that the series is in Cleveland, or if they’ll just pack it in and quit like they did in Boston.
The King On His Throne
For now, Cleveland is LeBron’s throne. He’s defended it pretty well this postseason, averaging 37.7 points per game at home (up from the 29.7 points he’s averaged on the road).
He may have been laughing and having a good time with Love at the podium after Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, but James cannot be happy with the 2-0 hole the Cavaliers are currently sitting in. He knows that if the team has any shot to come back against the Celtics, he’s going to have to play like some sort of Superman/Incredible Hulk mashup, lowering his head and taking it to the basket with force and fury any chance he gets.
The Celtics haven’t allowed that over the first two games. They essentially shut him down for just 15 points in Game 1, and even when LeBron was exploding for 25 first-half points in Game 2, they were jumpers and threes that James had to fight or settle for. Nothing has come easy for him this series, whether it’s putting the ball in the hoop or trying to find open teammates. Marcus Morris has muscled up to LeBron and is once again proving that he is one of the better defenders on the most talented player on the planet.
Can Morris and the rest of the Celtics keep that going now that James has a home crowd to feed off of? If he becomes a locomotive and is able to attack the basket, bad things will happen for the Celtics. But if Boston continues to build a wall in front of him and make him settle for jumpers, well, he’ll still probably score 40-plus. But as we saw the other night, even that may not be enough for the Cavs.
A Confident Jaylen
“I really feel like there’s nothing I can’t do on the floor. It’s just a matter of doing it.”
That’s Jaylen Brown, just 21 years old and in his second NBA season. But he’s also playing in his second Eastern Conference finals and looking like a future MVP candidate, so you can understand why he’s oozing so much confidence.
“The more experiences you go through, the more time you spend out on the floor, the more situations you see, the more confident I’ve gotten. And I’m a pretty confident guy. But I feel like during this postseason my confidence has reached a new ceiling,” Brown said …. confidently.
The sky is the limit for Brown after he put together an incredible sophomore season, and he’s elevated his game to a whole new level in the playoffs. He’s averaging 17.8 points on 50 percent shooting this postseason. He has a pair of 30+ point games to his name and has scored at least 20 points in each his Boston’s last three games. He’s also playing some stellar defense and lending a hand on keeping LeBron in check.
And in the event he needs to match points with James, he’s up to that challenge too. When LeBron was going off for 21 first-quarter points in Game 2, Brown scored 14 of his own on 5-for-7 shooting to keep the Celtics within striking distance. For the series, he’s averaged 13.5 of his 23 points per game in the first quarter.
“I was just trying to match his punches,” Brown said on Thursday. “Sometimes you can get discouraged when you see that level of greatness, but as long as you keep fighting, keep throwing punches, in the end we stood on top.”
It’ll be important for Brown to continue throwing those punches (and dunks and threes) Saturday night, especially in the game’s opening frame. If he can once again help the Celtics hold off a surge from the Cavaliers (should the Cavs show up and have a surge), Boston will be in business.
Tale Of Two Terrys
Terry Rozier has been really good this postseason. All that’s keeping him from having a great postseason are his struggles on the road.
The third-year guard has been great at home, averaging 20 points on 46 percent shooting. He’s provided a ton of highlights, whether it’s a back-breaking three or highlight dunk with LeBron giving chase. Yeah, that was awesome.
But while he’s been a human highlight reel in Boston, Rozier has been iffy on the road. Extremely iffy. His scoring average dips to 12.8 points in Boston’s five road games so far, and he’s hitting just four of his 12 attempts. He’s shooting just 24 percent from beyond the arc (10-for-41) on the road this postseason.
Rozier hasn’t been able to get the three-ball going this series, hitting just two of his 11 attempts, but they need him to become a threat again from downtown to open up the paint. If they want at a Game 5 clinching — or even a series sweep — the Celtics need Scary Terry to be a nightmare for the Cavs in Cleveland.