The Celtics are a win away from advancing to the NBA Finals.
“We knew how much this game meant,” forward Marcus Morris said after Boston’s 96-83 victory over Cleveland Wednesday night.
Game 5 was strikingly similar to Game 4, except this time around the Celtics were the ones who jumped out to a commanding first-quarter lead and the Cavaliers were the ones who couldn’t capitalize on several opportunities to close the gap. With the win, Boston has an opportunity to close out LeBron James and company at Quicken Loans Arena Friday night.
“We’re looking to play our hearts out Friday and shock the world that doesn’t think we can win on the road,” guard Terry Rozier said.
Here’s what we learned from Game 5:
Brad Stevens’s personnel changes were effective.
After much contemplation, coach Brad Stevens made the decision to insert center Aron Baynes into the starting lineup. Baynes immediately had an impact on the game, blocking a shot from George Hill and grabbing an offensive rebound for a put-back in the opening three minutes of the first quarter.
Baynes getting it done on both ends! pic.twitter.com/Xmu9x7J3lr
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 24, 2018
“He helps in a ton of different ways,” Stevens said. “I thought he did a good job getting to the ball off the glass and getting tip-ins. The purpose for that change was we’re going to have to play big some. We wanted to play big a little bit more.”
Baynes finished with three blocks, six points, and seven rebounds. Having another large body from the jump contributed to the Celtics’ defensive success, as Tristan Thompson was never able to settle into the game. After notching a double-double in Game 4, Thompson was limited to just one point and six rebounds Wednesday.
“I think that just by doing that, it was a change that worked in our favor,” center Al Horford said of the adjustment. “Aron was great tonight — his energy, his physicality. Just very happy that he had a good game as well.”
But a lineup alteration Stevens didn’t make also worked in the Celtics’ favor. Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he was expecting rookie Semi Ojeleye to play Wednesday night. When Ojeleye stayed on the sidelines for the first quarter (and the rest of the game, for that matter), Lue froze.
As the Cavaliers trailed by double digits, he inexplicably kept one of his best shooters, Kyle Korver, on the bench for the entirety of the first quarter.
“He’s been putting Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game,” Lue said. “He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.”
Home-court advantage is real for the Celtics.
The Celtics improved to 10-0 on their parquet floor this postseason.
Something about the TD Garden brings out the best in this team — and the worst in the Cavaliers. With the roaring crowd behind them, each of the seven Celtics players who took the floor in the first quarter scored at least three points.
Cleveland, on the other hand, struggled once again to get their role players in a rhythm. The first basket from a Cavs starter other than James or Kevin Love came midway through the third quarter.
“I’ve never played in a series where home court seemed to matter so much,” Korver said. “We’ve just played really bad here in Boston, and they probably feel the same way about how they played in Cleveland.”
“It’s more than just home-court advantage at this point,” Love added. “I don’t know what is going on. We’re just going to have to have a lot better showing and pick it up at the Q on Friday.”
As for why the Celtics have noticeably more firepower at home? Horford, Rozier, and Marcus Morris all attributed the higher level of intensity to the crowd’s energy.
“I just think that at home, one of the big things — I truly believe — is our fans,” Horford said. “I feel like our guys feed off of them and it really just drives us as a group . . . Here, I just think that our guys just feel comfortable and good. It’s a credit to the atmosphere that’s here. It’s just a lot of fun to play in right now.”
Jayson Tatum can do it all.
As if he hasn’t already proven himself as “a superstar in the making,” Jayson Tatum’s performance Wednesday night showed his ceiling has no bounds. After shooting 38.5 percent from the field in Game 4, Tatum took Game 5 by the reins and played with purpose on both ends of the floor.
“I thought he was aggressive,” Lue said. “I thought he was poised. He had scoring opportunities early he took advantage of. I thought, even though he was scoring the basketball, he didn’t try to rush or he didn’t press. He just played within the game and took his shots when they were there. He played like a veteran tonight. He didn’t try to force anything and just took what the defense gave him.”
The 20-year-old finished with 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals, and two blocked shots. He also made a postseason-high three three-pointers.
“He’s so offensively talented,” Baynes said. “But what’s fun about him is he wants to play the defense. He wants to get better on the defensive end. Every time he steps out there, he’s getting better and that’s a fun thing to be able to get out there and play alongside him.”
The rook is having himself a game! pic.twitter.com/z29UKqftwU
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 24, 2018
Tatum — the Celtics’ leading scorer this postseason — now sits fourth on the NBA’s all-time list for most points scored by a rookie during the playoffs. With 312 points through 17 games, he could potentially surpass Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (352) if Boston advances to the NBA Finals.
“Man, kid got game,” Morris said of Tatum. “He’s special. That’s about it. You could see he’s a special talent, over and over. He carries himself like a veteran.”
LeBron James seemed a little off.
Who knows whether he was actually tired, but James was not locked into the game.
Although he finished with a double-double, scoring 26 points on 11-for-22 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds, James also finished with six turnovers.
He broke them down after the game:
- “My first turnover, I saw something happening and Marcus Morris did a great job of reading it. I threw it up ahead to Kev, and he picked it off.”
- “My second turnover, I went baseline, lost my footing on Marcus Morris.”
- “One in transition to Jeff Green, I thought I put it on his hands, and he kind of fumbled it. Wish I could have that one back and maybe bounce pass that one.”
- “I had a backdoor one to Swish. It hit his hands. Maybe I should have not thrown that one. It was a little bit in traffic. Al Horford was right there, but it hit Swish’s hands. Maybe I should have taken that one back.”
- “I had a post-up on Terry Rozier that they doubled from the baseline. Jayson Tatum got his hands on him and I had a guy wide open. I should have faked high and thrown it low.”
- “My last turnover was just very, very careless on Terry Rozier. We had a pick-and-roll, I got the switch and I just lost it out of bounds away from their basket.”
“I think out of those six, maybe three of them were just careless,” James said. “I think the other three were attack turnovers, and I’m OK with that.”
Perhaps part of his offensive disengagement was a byproduct of the Celtics’ effective defense, but another area of concern is very much within his control.
There were at least five instances where James did not get back on defense because he was unhappy with a call (or lack thereof). Far too often he was caught throwing his hands in the air, upset at the officials, while the Celtics pushed the ball up the court for transition points on the other end.
Facing elimination, the Cavaliers are in a position where they need James to be 100 percent on both ends of the floor. If that’s not the case, then things are looking rather grim ahead of Game 6.