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5 questions for Cavaliers-Celtics series after Game 1

Zach Harper

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Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports

Just because it’s LeBron James and the Eastern Conference playoffs, we saw a brief moment of doubt in the outcome of Game 1 at the end of the third quarter. For the most part, the Boston Celtics had run the Cleveland Cavaliers off the court. They led by as many as 29 points in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and LeBron looked completely out of sorts throughout all of it.

However, over the final 4:15 of the third quarter, the Cavs actually played effective basketball. They went on a 12-3 run that ended in a scramble for a loose rebound leading to a Jeff Green midrange jumper.

All of a sudden, the Cavs found themselves down just 14 points with 12 minutes left to play. A 7-0 run by the Celtics to start the fourth quarter ended any thoughts of a historic comeback by the Cavs. A minute into the fourth quarter, the Celtics had put the game away once and for all as the Cavs just looked to get through Game 1 without injuries to anyone or anything but their pride. Boston cruised to a 108-83 victory as they flexed their muscles and showed everybody LeBron won’t get to stroll to the Finals once again.

We’ve seen LeBron lose the first game of a playoff series 16 times. In those 16 series, LeBron’s team ended up winning nine of them. Historically, this game isn’t that damning for the Cavs.

We can harken back to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals when the Chicago Bulls blitzed LeBron and the Miami Heat in the first game with a 21-point beatdown. The Heat won the next four games. But that Heat team was also good, and this Cavs team is not. It has been dragged into the Eastern Conference Finals by LeBron’s will all season long. Their dysfunction has often known no bounds and their cohesiveness as a unit has continued to fray. Throw in LeBron barely showing up in Game 1 against the Celtics this time around and things feel much shakier.

A comeback in Game 1 looked too ambitious to happen, but a comeback in this series feels doable. The Cavs just have to get their act together enough for LeBron to rebound and carry them to another Finals.

As we wait for Game 2 Tuesday night and a chance at Cavs redemption, I have five questions about Game 1 and what it means for the rest of the series.

How do the Cavs solve the Celtics defense?

The Boston Celtics defense didn’t finish with the best defensive rating for the season by accident. While the peak of the Utah Jazz defense was better, the Celtics offered up the most consistent defense all season long.

Boston does this defense thing really well though, and they showed all of the components of their efforts in Game 1 against the Cavs. The Celtics rank in the top 10 in the NBA in 3-point rate allowed. They run their opponents off the 3-point line extremely well, forcing midrange shots or contested looks in the paint. They also allowed the lowest 3-point accuracy in the NBA this season.

In Game 1, the Cavs just couldn’t hit shots against them. No matter how you slice it up for the Cavs, the looks just didn’t fall.

Cleveland made just 16-of-53 (30.2 percent) on uncontested field goal attempts. They went 1-of-8 on open 3-point looks and just 3-of-16 on wide-open 3-point looks. Some of that ends up counting as bad luck in a snowball effect type of way against the Celtics. But Boston also did a phenomenal job of getting Cleveland out of rhythm. A lot of the times they earned these uncontested looks, they rushed the shots, causing them to ricochet off the rim.

Of course, all of this has to do with just how non-existent LeBron seemed in this game. From the early moments, LeBron didn’t appear to have the determination of willing himself or the team into the right mindset. He finished with 15 points (5-of-16 from the field), nine assists, seven rebounds, and seven turnovers. But his inability to make shots or take care of the ball left the Cavs without any consistent answer in this game. How do the Cavs snap out of that and start working against this Celtics defense?

Boston will continue to shade multiple defenders into the eventual driving paths of LeBron. If you’ve ever seen the Nicolas Cage movie Next (don’t recommend it; it’s on Netflix and has the worst twist in movie history), Cage’s character is a magician trying to solve a terrorist attack. He can see the future in small doses, essentially foreseeing the consequences of whichever path he takes. LeBron may have this power on some level on the basketball court. When he looks at the different driving lanes and sees where the Celtics help defenders will come from, there really aren’t great pathways. Boston can shade all of those defenders toward LeBron and feel confident they’ll recover to the perimeter shooters.

Instead, LeBron has to find ways to get out into transition to put pressure on Boston. He has to be decisive in his movements in the halfcourt in order to get Celtics defenders on their heels. While LeBron can flash a jumper every once in a while, he really needs to play more bully ball to collapse the defense and then set up his teammates for in-rhythm jump shots.

In the regular season, we didn’t see much difference in opponents performances in wins compared to losses against the Celtics. Opponents simply hit about 5.0 percent higher from deep and 5.0 percent higher from the field. In the postseason, the gulf in 3-point accuracy between wins and losses for opponents is around 8.0 percent.

If the Cavs start making outside shots they can receive the snowball effect in their favor. They may actually even put some pressure on Boston.

Will Tristan Thompson torture Al Horford again?

Al Horford against the Cleveland Cavaliers hasn’t gone all that well since LeBron James returned to Ohio. While Horford has done a decent job moving the ball and knocking down jumpers, Tristan Thompson has tortured him and any Horford team during their playoff matchups.

After the Game 1 victory, Horford moved to 2-12 in playoff games against Thompson. The Cavaliers’ Canadian big man has more than doubled his rebounding total and left the Horford teams scrambling to end possessions. Thompson has grabbed more offensive rebounds in the playoffs against Horford than the Hawks/Celtics big man has grabbed total rebounds.

In 2016, the Cavs outscored the Hawks by 26 points over four games with Horford and Thompson sharing the court together. In 2017, that number ballooned to plus-81 in five games with the two big men sharing the court with Horford on the Celtics this time.

However, Game 1 didn’t find a similar domination that we’re used to seeing.

The Celtics outscored the Cavs by five points with the two of them on the court in nine minutes. Horford didn’t completely outplay Thompson and he didn’t grab a rebound when they dueled against each other. But he didn’t get shredded by that matchup either, and that’s a huge step in the right direction for Horford and his team.

There are a ton of extenuating circumstances that make this go beyond just Thompson versus Horford. But not having this cloud hanging over Horford’s head is another feather in the Celtics’ cap.

Moving forward, Thompson has to find a way to make life hell for Horford again. He has to dominate him on the offensive boards. He has to finish at the rim and become a real threat for LeBron to pass to. Thompson had nice numbers with eight points and 11 rebounds in 21 minutes, but he needs to have a bigger defensive impact. Otherwise, all those jokes Cavs fans had about Horford will be distant memories.

How can the Cavs win the point guard battle?

Has anybody seen George Hill? We saw Hill play excellent basketball for the Jazz last season. Then he signed with the Sacramento Kings and might have gone into Witness Protection because we haven’t seen that guy since.

His dissatisfaction with the Kings situation wasn’t well hidden, but he chose to sign there for the money. Granted, that came after poorly estimating what the market and demand would be for him, but he made his money bed and needed to sleep in it. Hill found salvation at the trade deadline when the Cavs made a move for him. Since then, we’ve seen some solid moments but nothing consistent.

As good as Terry Rozier has been in the postseason, there is no reason why Hill should get outplayed by Rozier in this series — just based on talent and production alone. And yet, Rozier was out there making an impact once again while Hill just sort of floated in the background of the game.

Cleveland needs Hill to be the pick-and-roll weapon he’s been for most of his career. He doesn’t have to generate a lot of assists for his team, but coming around screens as Kevin Love pops to the perimeter should give him plenty of room to operate to score.

He took four shots in 28 minutes in Game 1. He scored five points and had zeroes across the rest of the box score. This was just the 12th game in his career that he’s played at least 28 minutes while taking four shots or fewer. It was just the second one since 2014, when Hill really started to establish himself as a scoring threat. Both of those happened this season with the other one coming for Sacramento.

Hill needs to inject his talent into the game. His defense should bother Rozier in theory, but then again the Cavs defense as a whole shouldn’t be as pathetic as it is. Rozier didn’t shoot well in Game 1 but he found playmaking opportunities for himself and others. Hill didn’t do much of anything and just blended into the slop that was the Cavaliers.

Is Ty Lue able to coach with Brad Stevens?

What possible adjustments can Ty Lue make against Brad Stevens after Game 1? Prior to the series, Lue talked to reporters about how Cavs owner Dan Gilbert told him he needed to try new things/tactics to prepare for the postseason.

Lue is the worst coach to ever win an NBA title — at least in the 3-point era. He coached his team to the title basically on the flukiest comeback in NBA history. The only thing he’s improved since taking over for David Blatt is that LeBron and company no longer make sniping comments about the coach.

Brad Stevens, on the other hand, has so much praise being heaped on him right now that he called it uncomfortable and asked for it to go to his players. Stevens saw a lot of room for improvement in the Game 1 blowout victory. Most likely, he wants the defense tightened up to yield fewer open looks the Cavaliers weren’t able to capitalize on.

What is the adjustment Lue makes for the Cavs? Cleveland can try to run more post-ups for Love and LeBron. That could force the defense to collapse some. Defensively, I’m not sure what the Cavs do. Their system either has all of the holes in it or it’s just broken. They offer up minimal resistance to dribble drives by the Celtics. And this is a Celtics team without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving to carve them up. They’re making Jayson Tatum look like upper management Kevin Durant.

Lue can try to approach their defense with more aggressiveness to try to force some sloppiness. It could lead to an even bigger avalanche of paint attacks by Boston, but at least more effort could find its way to their end of the floor.

How do the Celtics account for LeBron moving forward?

So let’s get back to that whole LeBron thing in Game 1. By his standards, he didn’t show up at all. He never quelled the early runs by the Celtics. LeBron never sparked the big run that made the Celtics actually nervous.

We kept waiting for LeBron to flex his muscles or snap his fingers or put his foot on the pedal. Instead, he just coasted through a car crash and didn’t seem all that bothered by it. Even after the game, LeBron said he had zero level of concern. He knows one game won’t kill the Cavs in this series.

Or maybe LeBron has just committed to leaving after this season and so this doesn’t affect him like it normally would. Either way, we should still expect to see a better LeBron the rest of this series. But what does that look like? Which defenders does he target to pick apart? How do the Celtics work to slow all of that down the way we saw in Game 1?

Marcus Morris talked a big game before Game 1 and the Celtics helped him deliver. He said only Kawhi Leonard defended LeBron better than he does. In Game 1, Second Spectrum had Morris defending LeBron on 39 possessions. The Cavs scored 35 points on those possessions (89.7 offensive rating) while LeBron had eight points on 3-of-10 shooting, five assists, and four turnovers. The only other player with significant possessions was Semi Ojeleye. That resulted in 16 points on 15 possessions for the Cavs (106.6 offensive rating). But LeBron only scored two points (three shots) and dished out four assists.

LeBron didn’t knock down a single outside jumper in this game. At the same time, he didn’t manage to attack the basket enough. All of that should be expected to change in Game 2.

If he doesn’t get around five layups in Game 2, that should be considered a failure. If he doesn’t manage to get to the free throw line 10 times, that’s also a failure. LeBron has to keep the turnovers under five in order to stop Boston from preventing these Cleveland runs. We know James will find his way into a scoring and playmaking rhythm.

The way the Celtics prevent that is sticking with the same principles. If you make LeBron a scorer, take away his passing to guys like JR Smith, Kyle Korver, and Kevin Love. Make Jeff Green beat you. Make Rodney Hood beat you. Just don’t let LeBron put his fingerprints on this series.

LeBron has come back from 0-1 in his career nine times out of 16. He has come back from down 0-2 in a series just twice in six attempts. One was the comeback against the Warriors in 2016. The other one happened back in 2007.

Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.

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