All season, the Cavaliers have been maligned for their indifferent (and that’s putting it kindly) approach to playing defense.
But in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night, Cleveland played elite defense. It held the Celtics to well under 40 percent shooting from both the field overall, and from behind the three-point arc.
If Cleveland had been told that before the game, the entire organization would’ve been giddy. There would’ve been no way the Cavaliers could lose such a game when they are that engaged defensively.
Only they could. And they did. Why? Because the one thing these completely unpredictable and unreliable Cavaliers could count on all season long – their explosive offense producing points – failed them in their biggest game of the year.
As a result, Boston emerged with a 96-83 victory over Cleveland, giving the Celtics a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series. Now Cleveland – the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions – will head back to Northeast Ohio knowing one more loss in either Game 6 Friday or, if necessary, Game 7 back in Boston Sunday night will result in Cleveland’s season coming to an end.
That happened because LeBron James and Kevin Love got no help from their teammates. James – with constant chatter from ESPN’s broadcast team that he didn’t look right throughout the game – still finished with a line of 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 39 minutes. Love, meanwhile, had 14 points, seven rebounds and two assists.
The rest of the Cavaliers? They combined to score 42 points on 14-for-39 shooting, with none of the remaining 11 players who participated in the game finishing in double figures. As a team, Cleveland shot just 9 for 34 from three-point range – a 26.5 percent clip.
While Cleveland has been explosive offensively all season long, when the Cavaliers have failed to hit three-point shots, they have fallen apart. That’s precisely what happened Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, the Celtics just keep rolling on. Rookie Jayson Tatum remains a remarkable story, finishing with 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in 41 minutes. Despite the Celtics as a team shooting a dismal 36.5 percent from the field and 13 for 39 from three-point range, five of the seven players who scored for Boston finished in double figures, and Boston created 15 second chance points by corralling seven offensive rebounds and got nine extra points at the free throw line (Boston shot 21 for 23, compared to 12 for 19 for Cleveland).
After taking a double-digit lead late in the first quarter, Boston never looked back. In a game reminiscent of how Game 4 played out Monday night in Cleveland (only in reverse), the Cavaliers made several pushes to get Boston’s lead back to 10, and even back to single digits, early in the first half. But another run to end the third and start the fourth put things away for good for Boston, which salted the game away and got the win.
With it, the Celtics improved to 10-0 at home this postseason. Now, it will hope to improve on its 1-6 record away from home in Game 6 Friday night in Cleveland. A win there will make Boston the first team to beat James in the Eastern Conference playoffs since … Boston, eight years ago, when the Celtics took out James in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That Celtics team, though, was veteran-laden, and already had won a title. This one is supremely talented, but young and inexperienced. What Boston lacks in experience, though, it makes up for in energy and determination – something it’ll need plenty of to dethrone the King.
Wednesday was a good start, though. Boston needed to maintain its home court advantage, and it did – just in a way no one expected.
But by shutting down James and his explosive Cavaliers offense, the Celtics moved one game closer to returning the league’s most storied franchise back to the pinnacle of the sport.
Yet another swing play: LeBron James misses a layup, and then Al Horford got a dunk at the other end, pushing Boston’s lead back to 14 points, instead of cutting it to 10. That’s now a nine-point swing on just two plays – this one, and the one we referenced in the third quarter that ended in a Jayson Tatum three.
Obviously there are hundreds of such sequences in a basketball game. But Cleveland has been on the wrong end of too many tonight. As a result, the Cavaliers look like they’re headed back to Northeast Ohio one loss from elimination.
A killer swing for Cleveland: a tipped ball ends up with LeBron James running a three-on-two break for what looks like a layup.
Instead, Terry Rozier got his hand on James’s pass to Kevin Love, and started a fast break the other way. Jayson Tatum shot a wing three and buried it.
What could’ve been an eight point game is now a 13-point Celtics lead. Those are the kinds of swings that can be fatal for a team trying to climb out of a hole on the road, as Cleveland is attempting to do.
Since Kevin Love got over his hand injury in the first round of the playoffs, Cleveland has essentially been the LeBron & Kevin Show.
That is the case again in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals – and needs to change for the Cavaliers to have a chance of winning in Boston.
James has 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists, while Love has 10 points and five rebounds. The rest of the Cavaliers are 4 for 18 from the field, including 3 for 10 from three-point range.
That, in a nutshell, is why Cleveland trails 53-42 at halftime.
J.R. Smith hasn’t scored. George Hill has hit three free throws. Kyle Korver has only made one shot. Cleveland needs these other players to get going.
If they don’t, Boston will push its home record to 10-0, and Cleveland will find itself on the brink of elimination.
We’ve said a few times in this space that the matchup of the series is between Terry Rozier and George Hill.
But what happens when both guys are doing nothing? That’s a win for Boston.
Hill just got on the board late in the first half, making one of two free throws to score his first point and make it 51-38 Boston. Rozier has three points in 16 minutes; Hill has one in 15. Cleveland has looked like a different team in these playoffs when Hill has been good.
When he’s been injured, or invisible, it’s been a far tougher slog for the Cavaliers.
Hill has just drawn another foul, and is showing signs of life. For Cleveland to win this game, that needs to continue heading into the second half.
Perhaps it would be smart for Cleveland to play Kyle Korver more?
After leaving Korver on the bench for the entire first quarter, Cleveland has surged back into the game with him on the court here early in the second. It’s not that Korver alone is making the entire difference; but his gravity on the court helps Cleveland’s offense, and his smarts and length defensively allow him to stay on the court.
Cleveland now finds itself within eight halfway through the second, and continues to hack away at Boston’s lead. If it can catch up by halftime, that will be a huge win.
It may have taken a fracas to turn this game around for the Cavaliers.
Now down 36-19 early in the second quarter, there has been a lengthy review. Marcus Morris fouled Larry Nance, Jr. when he was in the air, sending Nance falling to the ground and then standing over him and taunting him.
As Morris walked away, Nance got up and shoved him in the back, leading to both teams getting animated and both players needing to be separated.
After said lengthy review, the officials determined both Morris and Nance got technicals – as did Terry Rozier – meaning Cleveland got a free throw out of the deal.
Then, after Kyle Korver hit the free throw, he hit a three, followed by Nance finishing a putback off an offensive rebound as Cleveland has slowly begun to chip away at Boston’s lead.
The opening minutes of Game 5 between the Cavaliers and Celtics have been the kind of topsy-turvy, tense and entertaining ones you’d expect from two teams that split the first four games.
Then the Celtics went on a 16-4 run over the final 4:14 to take a 32-19 lead after one.
The danger signs are already present for Cleveland. Despite a strong start, Kevin Love has two fouls, Boston has already banged home six threes and Cleveland has committed five turnovers that have turned into six Cavaliers points.
Moving Aron Baynes into the starting lineup for Marcus Morris has had the desired effect for Boston – namely allowing Baynes to stick to Tristan Thompson and keep Thompson away for Al Horford. Cleveland hasn’t recorded a single offensive rebound yet, and Thompson was a non-factor – both of which are good signs for Boston.
The stage is set for LeBron James to do something spectacular.
He may have to if the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to do what no team has during these playoffs: win a game in Boston.
The Celtics are a perfect 9-0 in this postseason – which is the only reason they are still playing, given they are a dismal 1-6 on the road, after losing both Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland to allow the Cavaliers to even the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.
Now, though, the ultimate set piece is in place: The best player in the game today going to the place of some of both his greatest triumphs and lowest defeats, needing to summon something special to beat a game young opponent.
What could be better than that?
The question, though, is whether James will be able to do that. His supporting cast is spotty. Boston’s role players have been far, far better at home (hence the team’s home-road splits in these playoffs). With a third game happening in five days, fatigue could become a factor – and no one is carrying a heavier burden in these playoffs than James is, and doing so at 33 years old, no less.
But all of that will only add to the drama of what should be a terrific atmosphere in Boston. This could wind up being one of the iconic moments of a legendary career, with a win putting Cleveland in position to make the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year – and for James to make it for an eighth straight time.
Now, all eyes turn to James, to see if one of the greatest players this sport has ever seen can conjure up a moment worthy of the occasion – and one good enough to lift Cleveland to a much-needed win.
Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics, 8:30 p.m. TNT (series tied 2-2)
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