The Cavs continued their run of dominance in the Eastern Conference Playoffs on Wednesday night, easily dispatching the Celtics in a 117-104 Game 1 win. Cleveland’s ninth straight win cast more doubts on whether the top-seeded Celtics will be able to hang this round against the defending champions.
Here’s a look at four things that the Celtics will need to improve right away in order to give themselves a chance against LeBron James and company:
1. Put up more than a fight on the glass against Tristan Thompson
The Cavs’ 6-foot-9 big man picked up right where he left off in the regular season against Boston on the offensive glass. He grabbed six offensive rebounds in Game 1, using his strength, speed and length to gain position on the block against the likes of Kelly Olynyk, Al Horford and Amir Johnson for most of the night. Those six offensive rebounds led to him scoring seven of Cleveland’s 15 second-chance points, helping the Cavs build a huge lead that put the game out of reach for Boston early.
Marcus Smart provided some resistance in the third quarter when faced with the task of boxing out Thompson, but that physical mentality is one that the rest of the Celtics’ lineup needs to adopt against Thompson. Cleveland’s exceptional ball movement means there will be plenty of switching and rebounding mismatches on certain possessions. Boston’s bigs and wings need to take a cue from the fight Smart showed, otherwise Brad Stevens may be better off just putting Smart on the big man for the entire game.
2. Fight harder through on-ball screens against LeBron
The early defensive strategy from the Celtics in the first half of Game 1 seemed like a simple one: Stick to shooters at the 3-point line and hope LeBron James tries to be more of a facilitator than a scorer. That ploy backfired quickly once James realized what the Celtics were doing and shifted into attack mode. The four-time champion patiently got the defensive switches he wanted in the pick-and-roll and attacked the likes of Kelly Olynyk and Al Horford repeatedly in isolation. LeBron ultimately scored 23 of his 36 points in the first half on 10-of-15 shooting, nearly all of which came at the rim.
— Ben Wagner (@ben_wagner) May 18, 2017
By the end of the night, seven different defenders had tried guarding LeBron, all with limited success. Moving forward, it’s essential that Boston’s best wing defenders (Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown) work harder to stick with LeBron through picks.
— Mike Yourstowsky (@TheRisingSKI) May 18, 2017
Otherwise, James will continue to feast on defenders in mismatches, as seen here with Olynyk. Brown and Crowder may not even able to stop James, but they have a better chance at forcing a lower percentage shot than the majority of their teammates.
3. Keep track of Kevin Love on the perimeter
Love was one of Danny Ainge’s early targets in the Celtics rebuild, and it was easy to see why in Game 1. The sharpshooting power forward punished Al Horford’s intense closeouts early by drawing a couple fouls while attempting 3s, and then he proceeded to erupt for a playoff career-high 32 points, largely thanks to 6-of-9 shooting from beyond the arc. The vast majority of these looks came uncontested as the Celtics lost track of Love after rotating in the half-court offense or during transition.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 18, 2017
The performance has now put Love’s 3-point accuracy mark for the postseason at 45.7 percent. Nearly every player on the Cavs’ roster is a capable shooter from long distance, but Love is a star in the NBA for a reason. The Celtics can’t let him get into a rhythm and allow him to get uncontested looks. Boston’s rotations and defensive awareness must improve, and that starts with matching up with Love wherever he is on the floor.
4. Make the Cavs pay for the open shots they are conceding
Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue has made no secret about his team’s strategy on the defensive end this series, and that’s collapsing on Isaiah Thomas in the half court.
Yeah, Isaiah had a hard time. Layers on layers. pic.twitter.com/DRYlnJo6Cp
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 18, 2017
“We know Isaiah is dangerous, and when he gets going, the crowd really gets into it, their team gets into it, and it opens up a lot of things,” Lue explained after the win. “When you try to take him out of the series and try to make it tough on him, you’re going to give up some shots…Our main objective was to make it physical on Isaiah, try to take him out, and we did a good job of that. So when you try and do that, you’re going to give up something.”
That “something” the Cavs gave up was a huge number of uncontested jumpers early in the game to Boston’s supporting cast. The Celtics failed to take advantage of those opportunities, particularly in the first quarter.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: Celtics were 2-of-10 shooting on uncontested shots in the 1st quarter.
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 18, 2017
Of their 12 3-point attempts, the Celtics have been uncontested on seven of them.
They have missed all of those attempts.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 18, 2017
Ultimately, the Celtics found their rhythm in the second half (shooting 58 percent from the field, 45 percent from 3-point range) but the damage was already done by then. Going 2 of 16 from downtown in the first half helped dig the hosts into a 22-point halftime hole that they were unable to climb out of.
If the Cavs are not going to let Thomas beat them, Brad Stevens needs to ensure he has the necessary shooting on the floor to make the Cavs pay for that attention. Don’t be surprised to see more offensive-minded players (Gerald Green) with more minutes in Game 2 or a smaller wing inserted into the starting five in place of Amir Johnson. Ultimately though, it comes down to execution. The Celtics fought their way into the Eastern Conference Finals largely based on their ability to make the Bulls and Wizards pay with the 3-ball. If they want to have a chance against the Cavs, they need to shoot confidently on uncontested looks from the opening tip.