Most striking in the Cavaliers' 116-86 win over the Celtics in Game 3 wasn’t the continued brilliance of LeBron James or the belated arrival of his supporting cast. It was the sight of a Boston team without its focus—an increasingly rare case of this young core acting its age.
Until Saturday night, Boston’s attention to detail ranked among the most reliable constants in these playoffs. To a man, the Celtics execute. Al Horford raises the baseline on both ends of the floor with his cerebral play, from which Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier can springboard into dynamic moves. Their success stems not only from what they run, but how precisely they run it. Brad Stevens can scheme his defense with the knowledge that most possessions will end in a perfect closeout. He can draw up delicately timed plays full of misdirection because his players can enact them to the slightest squiggle on his whiteboard.
Those Celtics, for whatever reason, did not make it to Cleveland in time for Game 3. A different energy was to be expected; the Cavs may have put themselves at a considerable disadvantage by losing the first two games of the series, but a third would effectively end it. This game could never be as important to Boston as it was to Cleveland, and as such the Celtics would have to match the Cavs’ urgency with something else.
Instead, they left a void. Too often the Celtics stopped their own offense short. Rarely in the opening quarter did Boston play out its possessions to their fullest, relying instead on rushed, not-quite-open jumpers to complete the play. It took just six minutes for the Cavs to build a double-digit lead—one that would only grow as the game progressed. One can judge the health of Boston’s offense by how it devolves. The more dribble moves you see Marcus Morris make or pull-up threes you see Marcus Smart take, the further they’ve drifted from their center.
They never quite found it. Boston played 13 minutes before it was able to get Horford even a single shot attempt, and couldn’t manage to keep him in the flow consistently. The only saving graces—to the extent that such a thing exists in a 30-point blowout—were periodic bursts from Tatum (18 points, 6-10 FG) or Rozier (13 points, 5-12 FG). Their contributions were overwhelmed as a matter of scale. For every impressive drive they could muster, Cleveland countered with an entire run of their own. The rising tide sent Stevens searching for someone, anyone, who could give his team some life. Semi Ojeleye and the seldom-used Guerschon Yabusele saw more meaningful time in an Eastern Conference finals game than one could reasonably expect.
“We were clearly not as good as we had been,” Stevens said. “We were gonna have to steal minutes with some guys.”
This was the first time in the series that the Celtics were met with any genuine resistance. One could hardly blame them if they expected the Cavs to again bungle their coverage; blowing assignments, miscommunicating on switches and failing to rotate had become a Cleveland custom. Yet with a few days—and a pressing need—to tighten things up, the more veteran team found ways to stay connected. The breakdowns still came, but not to an extent that Boston could subsist on them.
The Celtics, on the other hand, defended almost Cavalierly. No team of LeBron’s will progress through a playoff series without meaningful adjustment. The great benefit of his presence is the tactical leverage it provides; there is no better means for a team to change its approach than the unguardable forward with unobstructable vision. Cleveland’s first two losses demanded those sorts of adjustments, but Boston guarded as if it were caught completely by surprise.
It was less than shocking that the Cavs looked to feature George Hill (13 points, including three three-pointers) early and often. It was expected that they might find more room for Larry Nance Jr. in the rotation, who—along with Tristan Thompson—could help dislodge the defense by rolling hard to the rim. Cleveland would be more active off the ball in this game out of necessity, and more deliberate in the way it attacked its most advantageous matchups. This is what playoff teams do. Boston, however, seemed strangely inconsistent in its response.
“I can tell you right off the top of my head there were a lot of breakdowns defensively,” Horford said. “It’s something we have to address and be better at on Monday if we want to have any chance of winning.”
Throughout the postseason, the Celtics have been a team with answers. They found the means to counter some of the league’s more impossible individual matchups in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. They’ve lost their two best offensive players to season-ending injury and yet still find the means to churn out points against the best competition in the conference. They are, on balance, as well prepared as any team in the field. It’s a testament to how good they’ve become that Saturday’s events seem so far out of character. Their three leading scorers in the playoffs have a combined six years of NBA experience, and yet it’s surprising when they take a haymaker from the season-long conference favorite. Suffering a big loss to LeBron James now counts as an unexpected development. No matter what happens next, that alone distinguishes these Celtics as an Eastern Conference challenger.