The Celtics Have Dominated the Cavs With Depth And Relentlessness

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For the first time since the 2008 East Semifinals, LeBron James trails 0–2 in an intraconference playoff series. The Celtics remained undefeated at home in the postseason with a 107–94 win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday. Boston has won both games in the series by double digits, and Cleveland appears to be in very serious danger of missing the finals for the first time since James’s homecoming. Can the Cavs recover as the series shifts back to Ohio? Here are some thoughts on Game 2…

• LeBron alone is not enough. James had another classic playoff performance Tuesday night, posting a triple-double with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists. The burden on James’s shoulders is clearly too much. James carries such an absurd load offensively that it would be unfair to expect him to be able to give the same level of effort on the defensive end. LeBron would have played over 40 minutes if the game wasn’t out of hand late in the fourth, and the intensity of those minutes is catching up to him against a team like Boston. The Celtics are too deep for James to steal rest during the game, and their energy in general seems to be an issue for an old Cavs roster. Most people expected a memorable night from James in Game 2. In the past, a 40-point triple-double was usually enough for LeBron to lead his team to victory. It won’t be enough against a talented, disciplined and fearless team like Boston.

• Jaylen Brown is relentless. The second-year player led Boston in scoring in Game 2. Brown’s motor is clearly an issue for Cleveland, which doesn’t have the athleticism on the wing to keep up. Brown was adept at getting to the rim Tuesday, mercilessly attacking the Cavs off the dribble. He also hit three of his eight threes en route to 23 points. As much as Jayson Tatum starred against the Celtics, Brown has shown off what he’s capable of in the East Finals. LeBron can’t be expected to shut down Brown while also throwing up 40-point triple-doubles.

• I actually liked the decision by Ty Lue to start Tristan Thompson. His presence on the court made Kevin Love’s life easier, he brought some oomph when setting screens, and he generally competed well on the defensive end, though Boston’s wings did hit some tough shots over him on switches. (Speaking of switches, Thompson’s insertion into the starting lineup also forced the Cavs to switch more discriminately, and their defense in the first half was actually solid.)

But Cleveland’s commitment to defense waned as the game wore on. The Cavs’ wings still struggle to fight over picks, and don’t have the will to do so for a full 48 minutes. Rotations are blown too often, and the team seems to content to try to make up deficits on offense instead of locking in defensively. Boston’s offensive rating was 114.8 on Tuesday, another high mark for a team that was average on that end during the regular season. Even with Thompson giving the team a brief boost, as presently constructed it looks like Lue has no great options to fix his broken defense. And as long as the Cavs play this poorly trying to slow down the Celtics, this will be a short series.

• The Cavs are living and dying by the three. Cleveland shot poorly from outside in Game 1, and in Game 2, started hot from downtown, connecting on seven of its first 14 threes. The Cavs would hit only three of their 17 three-point attempts in the second half, which arguably contributed as much to the loss as the poor defense. Kyle Korver had a couple good looks rim out, while LeBron—who finished 5-of-11 from beyond the arc—hit only one of his last four attempts.

In general, Cleveland’s role players have been a mess. Jordan Clarkson was dumped from the rotation. Rodney Hood scored two points in 11 minutes and was a minus-7. J.R. Smith shot 0-for-7. Jeff Green was a team-worst minus-17. There is just no help for LeBron outside of Love and Korver. Those were the only three players to score in double figures for the Cavs. Most everyone else is bricking shots and playing terrible defense. If Cleveland has any hope in this series, James’s supporting cast will have to play leagues better moving forward.

• Boston’s activity on defense is incredible. The Cavs had 15 turnovers Tuesday, thanks in large part to the Celtics jumping into passing lanes or creating takeaways with active hands. Boston had eight steals in Game 2, and those plays seemed to be particularly demoralizing for a Cleveland team that often loves to play right on the edge of collapse.

• At this point, it’s clear Boston is a deeper team than Cleveland. The Celtics’ youth has been an advantage so far in this series, as the Cavs have looked a step slow in both games. It’s not necessarily time to panic yet. Cleveland still has the ultimate trump card in James, and—as you’ll hear a thousand times before Saturday—a playoff series doesn’t start until a home team loses. The Celtics have won only one game on the road this postseason—the OT thriller in Philadelphia that arguably came down to a couple bounces. The Cavs aren’t cooked yet. But huge improvements will be needed from Cleveland to make this series competitive.

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