Uncreative is never a term one would apply directly to LeBron James under any circumstance, but it may be what’s ailing his team. Well, uncreativity plus fatigue, plus a strong Celtics team, plus playing against said team in Boston. Cleveland’s 96–83 Game 5 loss was ugly, and its opponents certainly earned it, but now the Cavs are going to need Game 6 to get Game 7. It’s not unfamiliar territory, but it’s never looked quite this dull.
On Wednesday, things never got much more interesting than a second-quarter scuffle between Larry Nance and a knowing, taunting Marcus Morris, which sparked a 9–0 Cavaliers run and brought them within eight—and it never seemed to get much closer than that. The game rolled on in oddly languid fashion, Boston making timely threes (it made 13 of 39 attempts on the night) and Cleveland never seeming to threaten except for another semi-fruitless 9-0 run in the fourth. James had 26 points and 10 rebounds; Kevin Love was his only teammate in double figures.
Boston leaned on Jayson Tatum, who led with 24 points, and Al Horford, who was +22 with a double-double. It’s a massive concern that the Celtics can shoot 36.5% from the floor and win that convincingly. Both teams actually made the same number of shots, but the actual gap never shifted much. The Celtics were near-perfect at the foul line, and had just eight turnovers to the Cavs’ 15.
What gives? Well, it’s fair to reason that the Cavaliers knew they might need seven games to do this. It’s certainly not an excuse, but with another game coming in Cleveland plus the factor of elimination-game LeBron, flipping the script here, taking it back to Boston and finding some clarity in the pressure-cooker isn’t impossible. Still, it’s hard to get over the visible lack of inspiration, and worry about what it might portend.
This isn’t purely a complaint about aesthetics: Game 5 shed light on one of Cleveland’s central problems. It was obvious they were tired, which hangs over everything. But rest assured stalled possession after stalled possession, rife with late-clock shot attempts and stagnant offense, will not be the way the Cavaliers win this series. The fear is that it’s not simply an energy issue, but a personnel problem made glaringly obvious by their opponents’ wealth of bodies and options. Winning basketball goes hand-in-hand with the ability to improvise, and beyond having arguably as great a freelance basketball player as there’s ever been on the roster, Cleveland just isn’t very good at it.
We can leave a dead horse alone, but this is where Kyrie Irving’s absence is felt: no Cavalier but LeBron has been able to consistently create good offense for himself or for anyone else. There’s simply not much rhyme or reason to their actions at times. The Celtics boast an athletic advantage in nearly every man-to-man matchup, and were appropriately happy to keep their shape, allow isolation and the two-man game, limit the Cavs to one shot and keep them out of transition. If you do that and catch James on a slower night, you can minimize their runs and keep separation where you can get it.
You can run down the list: Kyle Korver needs someone else to get the ball into his hands. Kevin Love needs to spot up or find room on the block. When not crashing the glass, Tristan Thompson’s limitations are evident. George Hill and Jordan Clarkson have lacked a level of consistency, and J.R. Smith is J.R. Smith. The only connective tissue is James, and they’re only here because he’s the best at it—perhaps ever. They’ll need to manufacture some offense, and there’s no savior waiting in the wings—it’s not a new story, but the Cavs will need even more from LeBron to have a chance. But this time, without an injection of offensive inspiration, it might not be enough. Game 6 is Friday.