Both the Cavaliers and Celtics look completely different from the teams that played in last year’s conference finals. After one game, those differences apparently favor Boston. The Celtics hammered the Cavs in Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, cruising to a 108–83 victory. LeBron James scored only 15 points despite entering Sunday’s contest averaging over 34 points a game in the postseason. Four Boston starters scored in double figures, as the Celtics repeatedly took advantage of poor defense en route to the blowout win.
That’s really where the story of Sunday’s game starts, on the offensive end for Boston. The Celtics had a peak-Warriors-like 115.6 offensive rating in Game 1. The contest was played at a slow pace, but the Cs still put up 108 points with ease. Boston did a great job of attacking whenever Cleveland switched lazily, which was seemingly almost every possession. Switching is a great defensive strategy when you have good individual defenders. It’s not a good strategy for the Cavs, who often switch to cover up effort. It really is hard to overstate how bad the Cavs’ defense was in Game 1. When the Cavs weren’t switching mindlessly, they were failing to pick up bodies in transition, or poor communication led to immediate breakdowns on even the simplest of actions.
Boston’s rangy wings took advantage of the likes of J.R. Smith, or George Hill, or Jordan Clarkson or anyone really, routinely finding lanes straight to the rim. The Celtics have 94 games of proof that they aren’t as good offensively as they played Sunday, but if Cleveland’s defense plays this poorly for the whole series, Boston very well could turn into a juggernaut overnight.
Meanwhile, the Cavs couldn’t find the right way to attack the Celtics on the other end. Cleveland also settled for switches, but Boston’s defenders were up to the task. The Cavs shot horrendously from the field, connecting on only 36% of their field goals, including a 4-of-26 outing from three. If there’s a silver lining for Cleveland, it’s that the team likely won’t miss so many decent looks from the perimeter moving forward. Still, the Cavs will need more side-to-side movement and less ball-stopping if they want to score against an incredibly disciplined defense.
We’ve seen enough of James to know he won’t be held down for a whole series. But he certainly looked passive at times Sunday, even if he’s earned the benefit of the doubt to play a feel-out game. Still, James can’t be happy about his seven turnovers, or his inability to get good looks at the rim. Marcus Morris, who called himself the best LeBron defender besides Kawhi Leonard, backed up his words. James made only five of his 16 shots, missing all five of his threes. Morris also got the better of the matchup on offense, scoring 21 points—and outrebounding LeBron for good measure as well.
The Celtics’ young wings continued to live up to the hype in Game 1. Jaylen Brown was the night’s high scorer with 23, also adding a vicious block on Kevin Love. Jayson Tatum was a plus-27 in 37 minutes, scoring 16 points, including some key buckets when it looked like the Cavs may have cracked open the door headed into the fourth quarter. Brown and Tatum are both serious issues for Cleveland’s defense, which is going to have a tough time all series slowing them down unless LeBron gets a chance at both of them.
Boston was also aided by another strong performance from Al Horford, who dominated his one-on-one matchup with Love. Horford was efficient offensively, while Cleveland tried desperately to find switches for Love, often to no avail. Those two will play a key role throughout the series, and Cleveland will need Love to neutralize Horford to have a chance.
Again, it’s important not to overreact to any one game of a playoff series. James and the Cavs lost by 34 to the Pacers before prevailing in Game 7. James has been blown out in the postseason before, and he almost always responds with a Herculean effort. Cleveland will have to come up with some critical solutions and counters on the fly, however, because Brad Stevens won’t let Ty Lue simply isolate LeBron to success. The Celtics dictated the matchups, pace and everything else in Game 1. What a difference a year makes.
Game 2 is Tuesday.