Can Boston beat Cleveland? They'll need to win a home game first.
“They didn't give us a chance [to beat Washington]. They didn't give us a chance when we were down 2-0 to Chicago. We got the No. 1 seed, they didn't give us a chance.
-Isaiah Thomas, after winning his first game seven.
It’s true. The Celtics, a team that was expected to crack 50 wins, were never given the benefit of the doubt beyond the first round of the playoffs, but it’s time to face the music. They have to face Cleveland. That chip-on-your-shoulder stuff doesn’t come off as inspiring while losing basketball games. So I’ll just be honest with you: I think the Celtics have a legitimate chance to win the series. A very low chance, but it’s better than nothing. The key to success is much easier said than done - they need to shoot the lights out.
Here’s the good news, the Celtics have hit by far the most three-pointers in the playoffs. I mean, it helps that their series went six and seven games, but it shows that there’s at least a little consistency, right? For the numerically inclined, the Celtics entered game one with 170 made threes while Houston leads all other playoff teams with 141. The total isn’t a big deal, but the Celtics do average the most catch and shoot points (31.1 ppg) in the playoffs, and it has everything to do with barraging the opposition with three point shots every game. Sometimes we shake our head at Marcus Smart or Jae Crowder’s contested three point attempts, but it’s pretty clearly a part of the game plan to shoot everything and anything if it has Isaiah-sized chance of going in.
I’ve said in the first two rounds that the Celtics can go as far as the bench takes them, with full confidence that the starting lineup will do their job. During the last series, for at least one game, the x-factor for Boston was Kelly Olynyk. This series, it needs to be Jaylen Brown. I wrote about Brown’s start to the season, including his first career start, back in October. To recap, LeBron shot two for six when defended by Jaylen Brown and 10 of 16 against all other Celtics. On the other end, Brown scored on two of his three attempts while being defended by LeBron. In game one, Brown was the only Celtic who looked comfortable on the floor, finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes.
Actually, “comfortable” would be underselling it. Jaylen looked fearless, yet composed. While the box score looks friendly for Boston’s current ‘Big 3’ of Thomas, Bradley, and Horford, they struggled to maintain possession early and generate much offense outside of a couple backdoor cuts from Bradley.
Moving forward, I think the Celtics top priority is to not let Tristan Thompson look like a max player. LeBron will go off no matter what, but the rest of the Cavaliers can be dealt with. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson, and Deron Williams collectively scored 10 points on 3-19 shooting. Cleveland is deeper than Washington, but their bench has underachieved all season.
The problem is, Celtics don’t have a strong enough body to put on Thompson, but they rebound well with Smart, Crowder, and Terry Rozier’s freak athleticism playing together. Replacing Amir Johnson with Gerald Green in the starting lineup again would be an attempt to get lightning to strike the same place twice. Starting Jaylen Brown to cover LeBron would be exciting but extremely hubristic, but could work out if Crowder can defend Kevin Love on an isolation play.
The bottom line is what we’ve all been expecting: the Celtics are outmuscled and outmatched. Such is life when a top five player of all time is still in his prime at age 32. The Celtics will need to win game two to make this a real series.