2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Boston Celtics' efficiency dismantles Cleveland Cavaliers' defense

Shorthanded Boston re-adjusts its offense, picks apart Cleveland in Game 1

BOSTON — Much is said about how playoff basketball is different from the regular season. The intensity is higher, the play is more physical, the pace is slower, the Toronto Raptors lose their mojo and LeBron James takes it to another level.

The playoffs are also different in that there’s more time to prepare and only one opponent to focus on. That’s a big reason why the Boston Celtics have been a better offensive team in the playoffs than they were in the regular season and why they took a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals with a 108-83 victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday.

Through the conference semifinals, the Celtics had, as expected, the least efficient offense of the four teams still playing. But they were the only one of the four teams who had scored more points per 100 possessions (107) than they did in the regular season (105). And they’d done it without Kyrie Irving (he averaged almost 10 more points per game than any of his teammates) and with a series against the league’s third-ranked defense (that of the Philadelphia 76ers) in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Even without Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have a lot of talent. But to have that talent scoring more efficiently than they did with a healthy Irving is a tribute to their ability to execute and make the most of whatever advantages they have over their opponent.

The Celtics scored just 103 points per 100 possessions, a rate which would have ranked 25th in the league, in their 22 regular season games (and just 99 in 11 games vs. playoff teams) without Irving. But it’s now been two months since Irving last played. They’ve figured out who they are without their offensive star.

“Through the regular season, there was so much change with our group,” Celtics center Al Horford said, “guys in and out of the lineup, different injuries, a lot of things like that. Once we’ve been able to settle down and find what fits this group, I feel like that’s what prompted us to be better offensively.”

What fits is balance and ball movement. Nobody dominates the offense. Six of the top seven guys in the Celtics’ rotation have a postseason *usage rate between 19.7 and 24.3 percent, none of the six in the top 25 of the postseason (among 123 players that have played at least 100 minutes). In Game 1 on Sunday, those six guys all had between 10 and 16 field goal attempts, with four of Boston’s starters scoring between 16 and 23 points.

* Usage rate = The percentage of his team’s possessions a player uses (via shots, turnovers and trips to the free throw line) while he’s on the floor.

Sometimes the Celtics will have an advantage when they cross the midcourt line. In the conference semifinals, the Celtics attacked J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli early and often. Jaylen Brown scored just six seconds into Game 1 with a hesitation move that got him past Kyle Korver.

If an obvious advantage isn’t there right away, the Celtics seem to always know who’s on the floor and where the advantages will be. And the ball moves until an opportunity presents itself. Horford, seemingly one step ahead of the Sixers for the entire conference semifinals is the fulcrum. Against Philly, the Celtics posted him against smaller defenders and spaced him out on the perimeter against Joel Embiid.

“You’ve got to give credit to Coach [Brad Stevens],” Horford said, “because he ends up making adjustments and being able to key in in the playoffs, whichever the matchup is, and giving us those options to go out there and execute on offense.”

Three minutes into Game 1, Marcus Morris tied the score with a three-point play, posting up George Hill after a switch. It was the start of a 25-2 run for Boston, as well as a sign of things to come. There was certainly some luck in the Cavs shooting just 4-for-26 from 3-point range on Sunday, but the points in the paint – 60-38 in favor of Boston – were a more telling statistic, as well as a reminder that as bad as the Celtics’ offense was without Irving this season, the Cavs’ defense was worse. Boston built a 29-9 lead because it simply got better shots, exposing a defense that’s prone to being exposed.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue admitted that his team let down its guard on defense. “But I thought they did a good job of attacking mismatches, attacking us inside,” he said.

“When you pay attention and take care of details,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said, “things like this happen.”

The Cavs have one giant matchup advantage, the best player in the world vs. whoever is in his way. Going forward, that advantage will surely play a bigger role than it did in Game 1, when LeBron James was held to just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting.

But the Celtics have advantages everywhere else, with the collective patience and intelligence to take advantage of them.

“Having the poise to say ‘They’re going to make some runs, they’re going to make some plays, just focus on the next one’ is going to be important the rest of the way,” Stevens said. “Being able to respond to the next run is really important.”

James and the Cavs have 48 hours to figure out how to play better in Game 2. So do Stevens and the Celtics.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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