Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Cavaliers and Celtics wasn’t as close as the 13-point deficit makes it seem.
Saying the Cavs have Boston in a stranglehold would be an understatement. Cleveland led from tip-off to the final buzzer, and the nine off days were more than enough. LeBron James was spectacular yet again, tallying 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in 42 minutes while shooting 14-of-24 from the field and an impressive 9-of-11 from the foul line. It was the 68th time James recorded at least 30-5-5 in the postseason, 17 ahead of second-place Michael Jordan.
Kevin Love also played exceptionally well and had 32 points and 12 boards in just 34 minutes. Outside of Tristan Thompson, who dropped 20, the rest of the Cavaliers weren’t a factor. And that includes Kyrie Irving who had 11 points.
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For Boston, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder were the scoring leaders with 21 each, and they were followed by Isaiah Thomas‘ 17 and Al Horford‘s 11. It’s easy to say now, but this game would’ve been closer had the Celtics not missed 26 threes (12-of-38). Additionally, they got whistled for 26 personals, and Cleveland went 28-of-35 from the foul line.
Two bright spots for Brad Stevens, though, were Jaylen Brown and Gerald Green, who played better than anyone else despite their limited minutes. Brown played 20 while Green was at 14, and NBA.com notes their two-man lineup had six minutes of action together and was a modest plus-three. It’s not Boston’s best, but both were much improved when paired up with Horford — Green and Horford, plus-nine; Brown and Horford, plus-seven. Even with three-man lineups, both forwards find their way to the top.
I expect to see them get more run in Game 2 because they produced and brought infectious energy on both ends of the ball. Brown’s minutes were sporadic against the Washington Wizards, but at 6-7 he gives the Celtics an option to look at when Cleveland goes small. He’s not able to stop James, but he can take away a secondary player, and that’s about as effective a game plan that one can have. On top of his defense, Brown chipped in 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting, and he added nine rebounds for good measure. The ownness now falls on Tyronn Lue to decide who’s going to take that matchup. Brown is too athletic for Kyle Korver to guard on the perimeter, and he burned the sharpshooter on a couple of plays and was able to sneak behind the defense on two others. His final bucket was a jumper over James, but that’s something Cleveland is going to live with.
All of Green’s points were virtually meaningless. He dropped all 11 in the fourth quarter but got hot quickly, and his shot from three is something the Celtics could use desperately. His accuracy is going to open up the floor for Thomas, who spent a majority of Wednesday night running into multiple defenders because the Celtics couldn’t buy a shot from downtown. Green isn’t going to do as much as Brown, but the two negate each other perfectly. His nearly instantaneous ability to heat up can jump-start Boston’s offense, and the others can feed off of that energy. Also, he’s not a defensive liability if Boston can find a way to stick him on someone like Richard Jefferson.
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The Celtics still have a lot of work to do. If Brown and Green (and Bradley) are the only ones to play well, there’s no chance of them avoiding the sweep. Additionally, LeBron told Kristen Ledlow in a post-game interview that he wasn’t even feeling that great.
“After 10 days off, I didn’t feel that great, but I know I feel a lot better heading into Game 2.”
That’s a frightening sentiment for Boston to hear.
As we gear up for the second game, it’s important to keep perspective. One game doesn’t decide the series and, even though the Cavaliers are likely to advance, the Celtics have a squad that can give Cleveland a decent challenge when they play at their highest level. Jaylen Brown and Gerald Green aren’t the answers, but they’re a necessary step in solving the problem.
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