CLEVELAND – On their first three possessions of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday, the Boston Celtics took three bad shots.
Three pull-up, mid-range jumpers, with plenty of time left on the shot clock, from three different Celtics. First Jayson Tatum, then Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier. It didn’t matter that one of the three shots (Rozier’s) went in. What mattered was the quality of the attempts.
The Celtics certainly aren’t the Houston Rockets regarding mid-range shots. They were right around the league average (19 percent) in the percentage of their shots that came from between the paint and the 3-point line. But they’re playing the league’s 29th-ranked defense in this series. Better shots can be found with energy and execution.
That never came on Saturday. Three shots do not determine a game, but they can exemplify it pretty well. The Celtics started out flat (scoring just four points on their first 13 possessions) and stayed that way in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 116-86 victory, which made this a 2-1 series.
Not even Marcus Smart could give his team an energy lift on this night. In fact, he contributed to a turnover (via a miscommunication with Rozier) on his first offensive possession after entering the game midway through the first. By the end of the opening period, Celtics coach Brad Stevens had already turned to Guerschon Yabusele and Greg Monroe to find a spark that would never come.
Two teams played this game and the Cavs were clearly better on both ends of the floor, as opposed to Games 1 and 2. Stevens didn’t want to put the 30-point loss (the Celtics’ worst of the season in regard to point differential) all on his guys.
“We were clearly not the harder-playing, more connected team tonight,” he said. “Cleveland was, and they deserve all the credit for that. I thought they played a great game. They came out and really moved it and were really tough, got into us defensively.”
The start wasn’t everything and Stevens’ team isn’t uncomfortable with early deficits. No team has won more games after trailing by double-digits than the Celtics. They have done so 18 times this season, including in Game 2 of this series, when they came back from an 11-point deficit late in the second quarter. But not once did they look like a team that would make a rally on Saturday. The Cleveland lead was 19 late in the first quarter and was never less than 15 after the 6:50 mark of the second.
I felt like [a comeback] was less likely based on how both teams were playing.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens
While it wasn’t all about those first three possessions, Stevens, Tatum and Al Horford all noted the Celtics’ early shot selection, unprompted, after the game.
Stevens: “I thought we took a lot of tough pull-ups in that [first] quarter.”
Tatum: “Early in the game, we didn’t get the ball moving side to side. We took a lot of pull-up shots and we just didn’t play like ourselves.”
Horford: “I felt like we settled for a lot of mid-range shots.”
The Celtics have grown tremendously in the last three weeks, from needing seven games to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round to winning seven of eight en route to a 2-0 lead in the conference finals. They’re the better, tougher and more resilient team in this series.
But their margin for error remains thin. The Celtics are prone to droughts offensively and they’re facing the best player in the world. If LeBron James gets some help from his teammates, the Cavs are dangerous. James got that help on Saturday and Cleveland made more 3-pointers (17) than it made in Games 1 and 2 combined (14).
The Celtics are now 1-5 on the road in these playoffs, with the only win having come in overtime. They will win this series if they remain undefeated at home, where they’ve been almost 24 points per 100 possessions better than they’ve been on the road, but Stevens was quick to downplay the differential when asked about it on Saturday.
“In my 11 years as a head coach, I probably haven’t talked about road and home five times with our team,” he said. “It’s about how you play between the lines. Because I think if you start talking about that, then you find excuses in both places.
“We can’t play like we played tonight no matter where we played. If we would have played in Boston like that, we would have gotten beat.”
Of course, by taking care of business at home in Games 1 and 2, the Celtics did give themselves the ability to absorb a loss like this. And maybe the Cavs still win Game 3 against a better effort from Boston. But with how poorly they played, the Celtics certainly helped their opponent get off the mat in this series. The Cavs had a negative point differential for the playoffs coming into Game 3, but they’re now a dangerous team with a 30-point victory in their pocket.
“It just shows when you don’t bring it as a team and you don’t play the way you’re supposed to play,” Horford said, “these kind of things can happen.”
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