Celtics 76, Cavaliers 72
She wasn't too pretty, was she?
This was old hat for Cleveland coach Mike Brown. The Cavaliers scored in the 70s five times in the playoffs last season and it's the second time they've landed there during these playoffs. That's hard to do when you coach the greatest athlete on the planet. But Brown is a "defensive coach" and likes to "win ugly." Meanwhile, he can feed LeBron James into the Celtics' grinding halfcourt defense for five or six games and see what comes out the other side.
For all its lack of aesthetic appeal, Game One between the Cavs and Celtics had its good points. The game was certainly close and competitive. Much, or even most, of the bad shooting can chalked up to intense halfcourt defense by both teams. The final numbers told a harsh story. Cleveland posted an effective field goal percentage of 33.3%. The teams committed 38 turnovers in the game’s 172 total possessions. James went 2-for-18 from the floor--the same shooting tally that Boston's Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to post. In his 37 minutes, Allen went scoreless for the first time in 11 years.
James had a bad game, there is no denying it. Paul Pierce and James Posey did a tremendous job on James but he nevertheless had some nice looks, particularly on drives to the basket, that he was unable to convert. Both of his made field goals were layups and he went 0-for-6 on three-point attempts. Perhaps just as important was that the Celtics’ quick defense did a tremendous job of cutting off James' passing lanes, the primary reason that LeBron coughed up an unsightly 10 turnovers. Even in such a subpar performance, James was still Cleveland's best player. That's one of the signs of a great player--when he can help his team even when his shot isn't falling. James had nine assists and nine rebounds and was largely responsible for holding Pierce to a 2-of-14 shooting night.
Another player in this series who can boost his team without scoring is Boston's Kevin Garnett. Garnett can fill up any column in the box score, but on this night it was points the Celtics needed and KG delivered. He went 13-of-22 from the floor and scored a game-high 28 points. On the defensive end, Garnett spent most of his time checking Ben Wallace--sort of. Wallace is such a non-threat on the offensive end that Garnett rarely even looked at him and instead spent his time roaming and playing help defense.
Having the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year available to play a hoops version of free safety is a nice luxury for Doc Rivers to have. Still, the one Cavalier player who consistently hurt the Celtics was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who was hitting open midrange jumpers. Ilgauskas' ability to hit the 19-20 footer draws Boston center Kendrick Perkins away from the basket, where he is uncomfortable. At one point, I was wondering if Rivers might want to switch the more-mobile Garnett onto Big Z to take that away. That would have allowed Perkins to stay close to lane where he can do what he does best--protect the lane.
Strong finishes are Cleveland's forte but the Celtics beat them down the stretch behind its Big Three. Only it wasn't the Big Three you're thinking of. Garnett hit some big shots late, including a layup with 21 seconds left that put the Celtics up for good. But Posey and Sam Cassell picked up the slack from Pierce and Allen. Both were huge in the fourth quarter. The pair combined for all four of Boston's made three-point shots, three of them coming in the final frame. At one point in the third quarter, as Allen struggled offensively and was also having trouble tracking Wally Szczerbiak, I made the following note: When is Doc going to sit Ray and play Sam? That's something to bear in mind if Allen's shooting funk continues.
Posey was impressive in his ability to man-up with James on the defensive end. All of the Boston perimeter defenders have the luxury of playing aggressively because Garnett is so good at coming off of his man to cut off penetration and playing the pick-and-roll. Posey is a long-armed 6'8" and James' struggles against him made me wonder if he consistently had trouble with longer defenders. Here's a quick-and-dirty look at that:
GM AVG_GS HGHT
7 34.2 6'5"
14 36.4 6'6"
22 39.4 6'7"
15 35.8 6'8"
18 34.9 6'9"
5 32.4 6'10"
1 39.5 6'11"
82 36.4 ALL
This shows James' average game score broken down by the height of his primary defender in every game this season. If you zero in on the four groups from 6'6" to 6'9", which account for 69 of the 82 games in the glimpse, it seems like longer defenders might have a shade more success against James. James is consistent against all groups, however, and his average game score of 36.4 was best in the league.
One other matchup that caught my eye was Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo against his Cav counterpart Delonte West. Rondo's length and quickness were a load for West and Rondo looked like he could get into the lane on West whenever he wanted. Rondo did commit four of Boston's 21 turnovers. However, it appeared to me that Boston didn't do a good job of moving into open spaces when Cleveland defenders had to come off their man to cut off Rondo. Daniel Gibson did much better against Rondo and since he also proved to be more of an offensive threat, I'd expect more Gibson and less West as the series goes along.
The refrain you're likely to hear is that the Cavs have to be thrilled by the fact that they almost stole a game in Boston with James going 2-for-18. To me, it's just as valid to say that the Celtics have to be thrilled by winning a game when their second- and third-best players combined to score four points. James will have better games--that goes without saying. Still, as long as Brown insists on walking the ball up the court and allowing the Celtics to dig in on defense, James will struggle in this series. It's more likely for that to persist than it is for Pierce and Allen to have another game like they did in Game 1. Cleveland needs to get easier shots. That means transition. That means quick shots. You know, things Mike Brown doesn't believe in.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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