The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night in spectacular fashion. A seven-point halftime lead disintegrated into a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, and it turned into a 14-point hole with less than three minutes to play, resulting in a 107-94 defeat that put Cleveland in a 2-0 bind that few teams recover from.
LeBron James did his part, finishing with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists for his 22nd career postseason triple-double, but it was not enough to get the Cavaliers even in the series.
”We’ve got to help Bron,” JR Smith told reporters after the loss. ”We can’t just expect him to do everything. As role players, we’ve got to play our role.”
Role players are part of the problem, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Coach Tyronn Lue’s most used lineup of James, Smith, Kevin Love, George Hill and Kyle Korver was outscoring opponents by 17.5 net points per 100 possessions leading up to this series, but the Celtics have dominated that lineup, outscoring it by 21.1 net points per 100 possessions. The second-most frequently used lineup, which swaps in Tristan Thompson for Korver, is getting beaten by 9.0 net points per 100 possessions.
If only the Cavaliers had another superstar who could run the floor with James and Love to even things out.
Oh, wait; they did — Kyrie Irving. And his absence appears to be hurting Cleveland more than it is his current team, the Boston Celtics.
Irving was traded to the Celtics this summer and immediately made an impact. An all-star for the fifth time in his career, Irving averaged 24.4 points, 5.1 assists and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from behind the arc before a knee injury sidelined him in March for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs.
When Irving and James shared the court during the 2017 NBA playoffs, the Cavaliers scored 124.9 points per 100 possessions. This year, that offensive rating has dropped to 109.8 with James on the court and declines to 94.4 during the 99 minutes James has been on the bench. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but that offensive efficiency without James is worse than what we saw from the Phoenix Suns, winners of Tuesday night’s draft lottery to claim the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, during the regular season. And since Cleveland’s defense, which at one point was one of the worst in the NBA, also took a step back, it’s clear the Cavaliers don’t have enough firepower to make up the difference. The Celtics, meanwhile, scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions in Irving’s absence during the regular season.
Irving’s skills as a spot-up shooter who also can beat his man in isolation made him a formidable weapon for Cleveland in the regular season and the playoffs, and now the Cavaliers are having problems with both of those play types.
In the playoffs, Cleveland’s spot-up shooters are shooting 35 percent and producing less than a point per possession; only the San Antonio Spurs were less efficient on those possessions this postseason. Love has been particularly bad (0.86 points per possession), as have Smith (0.94), James (0.94), Jose Calderon (0.82) and Rodney Hood (0.80). Not only has James been off the mark on those attempts, but some of them are occurring so late in the shot clock that he has had no choice but to heave desperate attempts from way beyond the arc.
Boston has excellent spot-up shooters in Terry Rozier III (1.4 points per shot), Marcus Morris (1.1) and Jaylen Brown (1.08). Rozier is producing an effective field goal rate of 74 percent on his spot-up opportunities, the fourth-highest rate among players who have taken at least 25 spot-up shots in the playoffs.
During last year’s run to the NBA Finals, Cleveland used both James and Irving in isolation, with Irving finding himself in man-to-man coverage almost 32 percent of the time, significantly higher than James played in isolation (23 percent). In 2018, James is going at it alone 29 percent of the time, making it his most frequently used play type. James has used 114 postseason possessions in isolation, more than twice as many as the rest of the team combined (55). Boston runs more isolation plays than Cleveland, but Coach Brad Stevens also spreads out the responsibilities more. Jayson Tatum leads the team with 54, followed by Morris (32), Rozier (31), Marcus Smart (21) and Al Horford (17).
It may be unfair to say Boston’s strong start to the series is the result of the Cavaliers having one fewer star on their roster, but it’s also clear that Boston had the talent to make up for losing Irving, while Cleveland did not. James and the Cavaliers are left scrambling to find an answer, but they better find it quick: In NBA history, teams that fall behind 2-0 in the conference finals have come back to win the series less than 6 percent of the time.
“We have an opportunity to go back home, protect home court,” James said after the game. “We’re going to use these days to really dive in on what needs to be done to help our ballclub be successful. They did what they had to do, and that was protect home [court], and now it’s our time to try to do that as well.”
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