Playoffs 2017: East Finals -- Celtics (1) vs. Cavaliers (2)
Keeping up with Cleveland Cavaliers' talent, offense a tough ask in Game 4
Cleveland showed on Tuesday why it ranks No. 1 in offensive rating for the playoffs
CLEVELAND — Sometimes, it’s just about talent. And in the Eastern Conference finals, one team clearly has more of it.
The Boston Celtics are well-coached. They haven’t folded in the face of adversity and have responded well from a 44-point drubbing in Game 2 at home. They’ve played hard, they’ve played smart, and they’ve played together.
But against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the margin for error is so thin. And against the Cavs’ offense, good defense is often not good enough.
In Game 4 on Tuesday, the Cavs shot 69 percent in the second half to pull out a 112-99 victory and take a 3-1 series lead. Asked afterward about how his team couldn’t hold onto a 10-point, halftime advantage, Celtics coach Brad Stevens had a pretty simple answer.
“Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.”
“They were unbelievable,” Stevens said of the two Cavs who combined for 76 points, 48 after halftime. “I’ll go look at it and see all the things that we did wrong, but I think it’s more of a tip-your-hat kind of thing with those two guys tonight.”
On Tuesday, Irving was too skilled and James was too strong. When the Cavs are rolling offensively, it can be impossible to keep up.
The Celtics scored a pretty efficient 99 points on just 90 possessions in Game 4. They didn’t shoot particularly well from the field — Marcus Smart’s shooting, as expected, came back to earth — but the Celtics were 19-for-20 from the line and scored at a solid rate, especially when you consider that they were missing their leading scorer. Without Isaiah Thomas, Stevens has, on the fly, been able to successfully rebuild his offense around post-ups and more ball movement.
But a rate of 110 points per 100 possessions often isn’t efficient enough against a Cleveland offense that has scored a ridiculous 119.5 points per 100 possessions over its 12 playoff games, with a combination of two of the league’s best one-on-one players and several of the league’s best shooters.
It’s a pick-your-poison situation defensively, and Tuesday’s dosage came in the form of one-on-one play from Irving, who scored a career-playoff-high 42 points and was assisted on only three of his 15 field goals.
There was some pick-and-roll action early in the third quarter that the Celtics couldn’t contain, and maybe that got Irving in a groove. But a lot of it was just isolation basketball that you don’t see in such a high volume from any other team in the league.
Your defensive principles may be great, but if you can’t stay in front of the ball-handler, you’re in trouble. The Celtics tried a possession or two of zone defense in the fourth quarter, but could never make Irving give up the ball.
“We didn’t do a good job of making him find his teammates,” Jae Crowder said. “When someone has it going like that, you have to load up and get the ball out of his hands. We didn’t do a good job of that and he made us pay.”
Stevens didn’t want to throw double-teams at Irving, believing that help in the paint on a tough 2-point shot is better than sending two to the ball and likely giving up an open 3-point shot elsewhere.
“I thought we could have done a better job of helping on the paint touch, like being over and showing ourselves a little bit,” he said. “But you’ve got [Kyle] Korver standing over there for a lot of that. You’ve got [Kevin] Love standing out there, you’ve got the different shooters, J.R. Smith and obviously LeBron. So yeah, there’s choices.
“I’m not sure there’s right choices because they expose you any which way you go. But when he gets going like that … the ones that we’ll have to go back and look at are the ones he got at the rim because those are the ones that we got to be able to get to the rim and attack quicker.”
Good defense is not good enough, sometimes even when James isn’t on the floor. Entering Tuesday’s game, the Cavs had been outscored by 28 points in 69 minutes with James off the floor in the playoffs. So when he picked up his fourth foul with 6:46 to go in the second quarter, Boston was in position to build on what was already a 10-point lead.
But both teams scored 14 points on their final 13 possessions of the half, with Irving scoring 12 of the Cavs’ 14. An even score over that 6:46 was a victory for the Cavs and, after shooting 1-for-10 from outside the paint over the first game and a half in Cleveland, James found his rhythm, never picked up his fifth foul, and had a huge second half in Game 4.
“That would have been a stretch where I thought we should have pushed a little harder,” Kelly Olynyk said of the second-quarter stretch with James on the bench. “If we could have extended our lead a little bit, it would have been great going into the half.”
But they didn’t. They left the door open for the Cavs and couldn’t hold down what has been the best playoff offense we’ve ever seen.
The Celtics played much better in the two games in Cleveland than they did in two games at home. They absorbed the absence of Thomas, moved the ball, and shot better. They’ve surely become a better defensive team without Thomas.
But that has been worth only one win, because they’re playing a team that has the best player in the world and a protege that can get buckets as well as anyone in the league when he gets rolling. Better offense beat better defense on Thursday and there just may be no stopping the Cleveland juggernaut on its way to The Finals.
The Celtics’ last try may be Game 5 on Thursday (8:30 ET, TNT).
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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