By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’re four games into the Eastern Conference finals, and nothing has been decided.
The Celtics and Cavaliers each held serve on their home floors, so it’s now a best-of-three for a trip to the NBA Finals. While the Cavaliers have the momentum, the Celtics have home-court the rest of the way, which could be the difference. That is, unless LeBron James proves to be the difference, as he was in both games in Cleveland. If that carries over to Boston on Wednesday night, the Celtics are in deep trouble.
Boston looked great in the first two games of the series, and then looked not-so-great in their two games in Cleveland. It’s been all about playing in Boston for the Celtics this postseason, as they’re a perfect 9-0 at the TD Garden and a disappointing 1-6 away from it. So you kind of get the feeling this one is going seven games — so long as Boston can defend their home court on Wednesday.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when Game 5 tips off:
An Early Lead Would Be Nice
If the Celtics want to steal away some of Cleveland’s good mojo, it’s in their best interest to start fast in Game 5. We know Boston can make dramatic comebacks, especially at home, but players and fans alike probably wouldn’t complain with a tape-to-tape victory like they had in Game 1. Or at the very least, a better start than the last three games.
The first four games have essentially been won in the first quarter. That trend could obviously change, but the Celtics can’t afford to dig themselves into a deep first-quarter hole like they did in Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland. They trailed by double digits in the first half in Game 2 before storming back, but getting down to a team led by James is playing with fire.
Game 4 was truly a test of patience for Boston fans. The Celtics shot just 27 percent in the first quarter, and it’s not like they were just launching threes, either. They missed three dunks, a plethora of layups and Jaylen Brown was blocked by Kyle Korver. Brown was later blocked by Korver again in the second quarter. It was brutal and demoralizing, yet the Celtics still managed to make things interesting in the second half. But in the end they ran out of steam and their comeback bid wasn’t enough.
The game would have been a tad bit different if Boston had just converted a few of those missed bunnies early on. Brad Stevens pointed to the 20-8 run by Cleveland in the final minutes of the first quarter as to when his Celtics lost the game. Such early runs by their foe shouldn’t happen Wednesday night, not on Boston’s home floor. If the Celtics have another bad start, they’re likely in for a bad end.
Just to reallllllllly hammer home how bad that first quarter was for Boston in Game 4, feast on this: The Celtics outscored Cleveland every other quarter in the game, and still lost by nine points.
The Celtics owned the paint in Game 1, outscoring the Cavaliers 60-38, and again won the battle down low in Game 2, 50-42.
The Cavaliers hit 17 threes in the Game 3 blowout, so they weren’t really focused on living under the basket. But in Game 4, with Boston tightening up their D on the perimeter (limiting the Cavs to eight threes), the Cavs outscored the C’s 50-32 in the paint.
LeBron James had his layup line going on Monday, while the Celtics missed 21 shots in the paint throughout the game. The fact they finished the game shooting 41 percent is nothing short of a miracle.
Tristan Thompson has really turned things around for the Cavaliers, keeping Al Horford in check since being inserted in the starting lineup. Horford isn’t an offensive force down low, but he gets the Boston offense going. With Thompson on him, he hasn’t been able to do that, and the Celtics have struggled.
Maybe it’s time for Brad Stevens to make a change…
Change In The Starting 5?
Stevens joked with reporters ahead of Monday night’s loss about a potential change in the starting lineup, but ultimately when with his regular cast of characters. That meant Marcus Morris was out there from the jump to defend LeBron, and he had three fouls by the 2:23 mark (otherwise known as the “Scott Foster Special”).
Maybe Stevens will insert Aron Baynes in the starting five over Morris, so Morris doesn’t pick up his fifth foul early in the second half again. But just remember, that starting five had their way with the Cavs in the first two games of the series here in Boston, so Stevens has quite the decision weighing on his shoulders.
Marcus On LeBron — No The Other One
The Celtics are OK with LeBron scoring 50 points, just as long as he can’t get his teammates involved. The Cavs’ supporting cast were a bunch of no-shows in Boston but caught fire in Cleveland, and it made all the difference.
Morris has done a good enough job on James, making him work for most of his jumpers, but his foul trouble hurt that assignment the last two games. So in the second half of Game 4 it was Marcus Smart on James — per his request. And despite the fact he couldn’t do anything else right on the floor during that game, Smart played some pretty good D on James, helping to force four turnovers on the 19 possessions he guarded him.
That may be enough to earn Smart a start over Terry Rozier — if even just for a few minutes to muck it up at the start of the game.
Smart isn’t big enough to guard LeBron on his own, so it will again be a team effort to make sure nothing is easy for James (and they should probably find a way so it’s not Rozier on LeBron in a switch). But Smart is a pest like few others on defense. He’ll bump James all the way up the floor. He’ll make James work and get a hand on passes. He may even draw an offensive foul or two. Chances are, he’ll drive LeBron crazy.
The Celtics again have to make sure James’ sidekicks are held in check, but a lot of that has to do with James getting them the ball. Make him work for his points, but make it even harder for him to get everyone else involved, and the Celtics should head back to Cleveland on Friday night with a chance to clinch the series.