After historical dominance through two games in Boston, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a major step backward in Game 3.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the Cavaliers were so much better than Boston through two games that half-serious water cooler discussions were had about whether or not the NBA should implement a mercy rule. The point spread in Game 3 was 17 points. According to a reputable sportsbook, over 80% of the action was in favor of the Cavs. All signs pointed to another ugly game.
In a bizarre twist of fate, the regular season "what's wrong with these guys?" Cleveland Cavaliers showed up just in time for the second half of Game 3.
In the first half, the Cavs looked great: Love and Irving combined for what felt like 100 three-pointers, Boston continued to miss their half-decent looks, and Cleveland led by 16. But in the second half... yikes.
The Cavs, who had game planned to stop Isaiah Thomas, seemed unsure of what their new game plan would be with Thomas sidelined. The answer, apparently, was no game plan at all. Marcus Smart - who is very possibly the worst high-volume three-point shooter in NBA history at this point - went 7-10 from deep. The entire Celtics team went 11-22 on three-pointers in the second half while the Cavaliers missed just about every shot they took.
In short, the Cavs blew a game in which they led by 21. They let an inferior team with a system-based approach and a swarming defense take control. Cleveland reverted to iso-ball about six minutes earlier than usual (late in the 3rd instead of midway through the 4th), and it cost them dearly.
There were still moments for the Cavaliers. Kevin Love's outlet pass to LeBron James has been shared all over r/NBA and Twitter. Kyrie Irving had some beautiful drives to the rim. LeBron had a couple of nice plays on an off night. And best of all, Tristan Thompson had a phenomenal game, including what felt like 15 offensive rebounds (seven, in reality) and a thunderous blocked shot.
Even so, this was a classic regular season effort. Guys were left open for threes, Cavaliers players didn't rotate, and Tristan Thompson was basically the only guy in a Cleveland jersey who went after a rebound. On offense, the Cavs reverted to isos (not even pick and rolls!) and it very much did not work. The passing stopped, the off-ball movement stopped, and the scoring stopped.
LeBron, by his own admission, didn't have it in game three. No one seems to be sure why, but that's life sometimes. Kevin Love, of course, went off in the first half. But here's something: In fourth quarters in the playoffs, Kevin Love (who has played in 7-11 of them) is averaging 1.3 points per quarter on 16% shooting, according to NBA.com. That's shocking. In first quarters, he's averaging 6.8 points on 52% shooting.
Yes, these are small samples, but they're not irrelevant. Here's why.
We've known about the Kevin Love first quarter all year long. He ranked 8th in scoring in the first period during the regular season, shooting 40% on three-pointers. It's the fourth quarter thing that's really strange. For as good as he was during those first quarters, he shot 26% on three-pointers in fourth quarters, ranking 150th in the league in scoring. Sure, LeBron and Kyrie take over the scoring late in the game, but it shouldn't affect Love's shooting ability that much.
It's worth noting that without Love's dominant first-half scoring, the Cavaliers wouldn't have had some of their substantial leads, so this isn't to say that Kevin Love needs to step it up. He's been other-worldly in the first half of the past two games and his overall numbers are excellent. However, the Cavs just fell back into their regular season habits of pounding the ball for 20 seconds and failing to account for the open man on defense.
All of the things that people questioned about the Cavaliers in late March and early April came roaring back. Game three felt eerily similar to the Hawks game when the Hawks had no star players to account for, yet somehow beat Cleveland in a (sort of) meaningful game. The Cavs just couldn't get a stop when they desperately needed one and the offense stagnated beyond belief. It was frustrating in April, and it's frustrating now.
The silver lining is that even after this ugly mess, the Cavaliers are up 2-1 against a team that likely played its best possible game. It's hard to imagine Marcus Smart going 7-10 again and it's harder still to imagine Olynyk and Jerebko scoring 25 points in 36 combined minutes off the bench.
The Cavs still have work to do. Fingers crossed that it's the team from the 10-0 start who does that work and not the team who finished the regular season by going 11-15 after the All-Star break.