The cycle of hope reached its peak
Being a fan of a sports team means taking the rough with the smooth. It means having dreams, and overly investing your mood for the rest of the week into them. It means having a strong and precise understanding of your own team’s weaknesses, however many of them there are, yet still believing the opponent on any given night is somehow worse. It means going through the Cycle of Hope – the dreams of what is possible, the often crushing reality that it isn’t going to happen, the hope that it might do with some tweaks, and the sad acceptance when it eventually doesn’t. Rinse and repeat, repeat to fade, etc.
Rarely does that hope work out. In the case of the Boston Celtics, however, it just did.
The #1 seed Celtics dropped game one of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the #2 seed Cleveland Cavaliers in a comparatively close 117-104 game, then got completely annihilated in game two in a 130-86 point loss in which they were already down by a whopping 41 points by half time. Making it worse, their star point guard Isaiah Thomas got hurt in that game two abomination and will miss the remainder of the playoffs. And then to top it off, the Isaiah-less Celtics got themselves into a 21-point hole in game three.
But then the hope came good. In an astounding comeback, Boston turned the game around and ended up with an 111-108 victory, on an Avery Bradley game-winning three-pointer. On the road, against the defending champions (who went through the first two rounds undefeated and who had thoroughly mauled them in the game prior), down 21 points, down 2-0 in the series, fresh off of a humiliating 44-point drubbing and without the only player on their team with the talent to single-handedly change a game, the Celtics’ comeback must rank amongst the best in NBA history. Certainly amongst the most unlikely.
It was unlikely both in terms of what the Celtics did do, and what the Cavaliers did not do. In games one and two, LeBron James had looked unstoppable. No team in the world has a particularly good or effective defensive one-on-one match-up for LeBron, but in Jae Crowder and the relentlessly unafraid if far smaller Marcus Smart, the Celtics had to think they had a chance of slowing him. [Jaylen Brown’s frame and athleticism project to make him exactly the kind of player who will be called upon in the future for these match-ups, yet as fearless as he is, he is far from ready for LeBron James in full stride right now.] Not so in game one, as LeBron just bullied his way to wherever he wanted to be on the court, whenever he needed to be there.
When Brad Stevens adjusted by attempting to put the length of de facto centre Al Horford on him on the perimeter, James responded by simply starting his drives from further out, almost on the backcourt line. In doing so, he was at full burst by the time he even reached the three-point line. And for all his defensive instincts, Al Horford running backward has no chance against LeBron James running forward. It was a dissection, and the Celtics needed something to change and slow LeBron, likely without even really knowing what it was.
In game three, however, LeBron was ordinary. Thoroughly ordinary. Poor, even – an ‘ordinary’ night from LeBron would have been more than enough to win. James finished the game with a stat line of 11 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 turnovers on 13 shots in 45 minutes. When his team needed him to come through and stop the rot, he could not do it. Just one or two of the dominant drives of the previous two games would have gotten it done, but they were not there. Scoreless in the fourth despite playing the entirety of it, James looked distracted and out of it. This was the 2004-era LeBron James redux, the one destined for greatness but not knowing quite how to actually go about it yet, and as well as Jonas Jerebko played in the second half of game three, let’s not pretend it was him doing this. LeBron, for some reason, choked.
The Cavaliers had plenty of reason not to choke. They could even have afforded a little choke, had needs be. Without Isaiah, they would have been unstoppable to the Celtics defense had they just shown up and performed decently. They didn’t need to be perfect – they just needed to show up.
Arguably, the rest of the team did. Kevin Love made seven three-pointers on the way to 28 points, Kyrie Irving shot 10-15 for 29 of his own, Tristan Thompson had a double-double and very much exposed the Celtics’ poor rebounding, and a hitherto-quiet J.R. Smith had 13 points and 8 rebounds. The other guys showed up. But LeBron did not. The Great One, who prior to this game had been in possibly the greatest stretch of his life and one comparable to any run in NBA history (had he had another 30+ point night, LeBron would have tied the all-time playoff 30+ scoring game record, and that’s not even considering all of the other stuff he does), instead threw up a goose egg.
There was some luck involved. With all due respect to Marcus Smart, a fine do-it-all player and tough competitor, it is luck when he hits seven three-pointers in a game. Standing in for Thomas at the starting point guard, Smart did what he always does – ball pressure, attacking the glass, flying around in the hopes of making an impact on either end – but he also did some of what Isaiah does. Creating shots off of the dribble, pulling up, taking the shot-clock beaters. And entirely anomalously for a career 28% three-point shooter, they went in. Smart shot 7-10 from three-point range, ballsy shots about which he was typically unabashed over taking but at which he was atypically effective at making. This will not happen again. Even a 5-10 night for him would have meant a Cavs victory.
Conversely, the Cavaliers shot 2-17 from three-point range in the second half. Just as hands can go inexplicably hot, they can also go inexplicably cold, and as much as the NBA discourse has moved on from the dangerous “live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot” school of thought, it is still true in the sense that jump shots sometimes disappear. And for whatever reason, key shooters missing shots can often have a knock-on effect on the team. The Cavaliers were just one bounce-out away from making it a tie game, and two away from winning it even with Smart and Bradley’s heroics. Boston needed a serious second half scoring drought to complete the comeback. It got one. And the defense can only claim partial credit for that.
The Cleveland Cavaliers of the second half of the regular season suffered from an extremely worrying-looking penchant for apathetic, lethargic play. As talented as they were, they often played in a disinterested, plodding manner, as though they knew they could ‘turn it on’ at any moment. So complacent were they that they gave away the number one seed to this very Celtics team, yet so well do they ‘turn it on’ that the series prior to game three was as one-sided as it was. Remember, that 44 point win came on the road. A 44 point road win over a number one team. Even with the Isaiah Thomas injury factor, that is colossal. And Cleveland did it almost with ease.
Something about easy victories, however, appeals to the worst side of these Cavaliers. Every now and then, it seems, they are still prone to going inexplicably absent, of playing the selfish and lackadaisical basketball for which we admonished them a few weeks ago. We all have bad days at work, and all sports teams at all levels can have bad halves or bad games, collectively or individually. Yet Cleveland has a knack for doing so that is jarringly out of character for an elite team and a defending champion.
The theory, or justification if you’d rather, was that LeBron could find the extra gear to snap them out of it. After his herculean, all-time calibre performance in winning the NBA Finals last season, even in the last third of his career, it was assumed he would not let that happen any longer once it truly mattered. But this time, it was him doing it.
While the Cavaliers do not live or do by the jump shot, they do live or die by James. Of course they do. They have to. They are supposed to. They must do. They cannot not do. Where he goes, they go. That’s why they won the NBA Championship last year. And that’s why they lost game three on Monday.
To the Celtics’ credit, the lack of Thomas, the 44-point hangover and the 21-point deficit did not get them down. The ball kept moving and moving well, and although the trio of Bradley, Jae Crowder and Al Horford shot only 21-55 from the field combined, the team’s 18-40 three point shooting was a testament to the good spacing and enthusiastic ball movement that was the only way they would overcome the lack of their best individual playmaker.
Lacking the individual talent of the Cavaliers even with Thomas and certainly so without him, the Celtics play a good team style predicated on multiple options, ball movement, good spacing and plenty of unselfishness, punctuated by Stevens’s seemingly unlimited number of set plays run out of time out. And while they cannot rebound and regularly give up individual match-ups to quicker fours and bigger guards (especially with Isaiah in), that enthusiasm and unselfishness carries over the defensive end as well. They did well. It just so happens it was not about them.
With that in mind, that game three second half run will be extremely difficult for it all to sustain. There is no answer for Thompson’s rebounds on the interior, other than the foul, and even that did not work in game three as the 49.8% free throw shooting Thompson hit 12-15 from the line on the night. The three-point shooting of Smart and the near-perfect cameo performance from the hitherto-little-used Jonas Jerebko (10 points, 4-4 shooting, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, 13 minutes) was vital, and his +22 in his short time on the court is entirely representative of how useful his shooting and defensive effort were, but Jerebko is not changing this series. The Celtics are still mismatched defensively and under par offensively.
Although the Bradley, Horford and Crowder trio can all score a few and do so more efficiently than they did in game three, none are elite shooters or scorers, and all greatly benefit from the presence and defensive draw of Thomas, which they will continue to lack. Even with a well-moving ball and Stevens’s continued excellence out of timeouts, the Celtics still cannot create their own shot, and the power forward hole remains thoroughly exposable by a Cavaliers team that uses Kevin Love and LeBron James only in that spot. Jerebko was highly effective on both ends on this one occasion, but that is arguably even more anomalous that the Smart shoot-out. They are still wildly overmatched, even if they got away with it once.
Conversely, James knows what happened. He knows what he did do and what he did not do. He knows how good he is - and if he needs reminding, he need only watch the tape of game two – and he knows how much his team needs him to do it. If he needs reminding, he need only watch the tape of the second half of game three. This was the kind of performance that would damage a legacy were it to happen again.
Expect him, then, to dominate the game tonight. And there’s nothing Jonas Jerebko can do to stop him.