The Celtics will head back to Boston after a rough two game trip to Cleveland, where the team dropped Games 3 and 4 to the Cavs.
Game 4 was much tighter than Game 3, where the Celtics were blitzed from tip-off to the final buzzer. Cleveland set the tone early, building a 16-point lead in the first quarter. All signs were pointing to another Cleveland shellacking, but the scrappy Celtics did a good enough job to hang around the last three quarters. Along the way the Celtics managed to outscore Cleveland in each of the final 3 frames.
In the end LeBron proved to be too much, as the Cavaliers continued to answer every time Boston gave any indication of a run. James finished the night with a game high 44 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists.
These are three key takeaways from this game to focus on as the series shifts back to Boston:
Impact of Kyrie Irving’s Absence
If Game 4 proved anything, it’s that the Celtics could really use their star point guard. While the team has had a remarkable postseason run thus far, going up against arguably the greatest basketball player to ever step foot on a basketball court while battling for Eastern Conference supremacy has proven to be a whole new level of challenge. The area Boston is severely struggling with in this series is the ability to create offense consistently.
Kyrie Irving is one of the unique talents in the NBA that can create offense for himself and score efficiently and in bunches. In 60 games played this season Irving averaged 24.4 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. He shot 49% from the field and 41% from three. He led the team in offensive rating (108.7) and was eight percentage points higher in usage (30.7) than the second highest on the team (Morris).
As great as the team has been at scoring as a collective unit, the deeper into the postseason the more important it is for guys to get their shots off consistently. A guy like LeBron, or Kevin Durant, for example. Someone who can consistently give their team 30 to 35 points a game. Someone who can take over down the stretch of a tight contest and will their team to victory. Kyrie Irving is that guy for the Celtics, and it is showing now more than ever how much he is missed.
Can’t Win with Just Defense
Look at Game 4, for instance. As gritty as the team was in the match-up, they struggled to score consistently when they got big stops down the stretch. Boston deserves all the credit in the world for what they do on the defensive side of the ball. It isn’t a secret that they are in the position they are in being two wins from the NBA finals primarily because of their defense. But defense is only half of the equation.
The fact of the matter is Boston does not have a guy on their roster that can get his own shot efficiently. Tatum will get there, but he is only a 20-year-old rookie. Often during Game 4 and especially late in the game guys relentlessly attacked off of isolation plays, penetrating only to be met at the rim by 2-3 Cavaliers. More often than not those plays resulted in either missed layups or blocked shots. Cleveland finished the game with eight blocks, most of which came off of these types of plays.
Kyrie Irving would have unlocked Boston’s offense in this series had he been healthy. Boston may still have the defensive capabilities to scrape by, but there is no doubt having such a gifted offensive talent in Irving would have changed the dynamic of this series.
The implementation of Tristan Thompson into Cleveland’s starting lineup has proven key in this series, particularly on the boards. Cleveland out-rebounded Boston by 11 in Game 3, and followed the performance up with a +10-rebounding margin in Game 4. The Celtics gave up eight offensive rebounds in Game 3, and nine in Game 4. The combination of Thompson and Love have together dominated Boston in this area. The duo combined for 21 rebounds (five offensive) in Game 3 and 21 (four offensive) in Game 4.
Cleveland finished the season as the fifth ranked offensive team in the league. If Boston is going to retake control of the series moving forward, they can not continue to allow such a potent offense to get second chances.
With just over two to play in the third quarter of Game 4, Boston had just cut the deficit to eight on a mini run. They forced a missed layup from LeBron, but Larry Nance Jr. hauled in an offensive rebound, hit a quick put back plus a foul. The very next possession off of a Marcus Smart turnover they force another miss, this time from George Hill. That miss was yet again rebounded by Nance, who was fouled in the act and sank two free throws. The lead had ballooned back to 13, and after a quick 5-footer from Lebron Cleveland had flipped the script on the Celtics.
Grab Some Boards!
Right after a Rozier three to start the fourth, the Celtics again cut the lead to ten. On the ensuing possession Love tried to answer, missed and yet again the Cavs snag an offensive rebound. They scored on the second chance opportunity as Cleveland continued to pummel the Celtics on the boards.
The Celtics are a rebound by committee team. They do not have a player who can dominate on the boards like Tristan Thompson can. Staying disciplined and being attentive to where their match-ups are when a shot goes up is crucial to changing their fortunes in the rebounding department.
Despite their recent issues on the boards, Boston has proven they can compete with Cleveland. They out rebounded the Cavs in both Games 1 and 2, and in turn won the contests. They have the ability to pull it off, it will just take a more concerted effort moving forward with Thompson playing a bigger role in the series.
Comforts of Home
Given the team’s road woes, if the Celtics lose Game 5 in Boston, the chances of them stealing one in Cleveland to force a Game 7 is slim to none. The Celtics are a perfect 9-0 at home this post season, and an abysmal 1-6 on the road. A large amount of the disparity falls on offensive output. The team has produced 103 points per game at home to only 94 on the road.
Boston is a young team. Outside of veterans Al Horford and Marcus Morris, the team is very inexperienced in dealing with playoff environments. It is one thing coming in as first, second, or third year players competing on home court in front of 18,000 fans all rooting in your favor. However, It is a whole different story dealing with the opposition feeding off of a hostile crowd.
Role players play better at home. The age old saying rings true with this Celtics squad. Take Terry Rozier, for example. He has been night and day when it comes to home production versus road. In nine home games he is averaging 20 points per game on 45.55 shooting. Over seven away contests he is averaging 13.2 points on 35.4% shooting. In Game 4 he shot 6-15 from the field and 3-9 from three.
Fortunately for the Celtics the series is now down to best two of three, with Boston in possession of two home games. Though the road concerns do not bode well for the team if they are to make the NBA Finals, if they can take care of home court they will be able to finally knock off LeBron James and end his reign on the Eastern Conference.
It all starts in Game 5, a must win contest for the Celtics.
The pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals will take place tonight at 8:30 PM in TD Garden.