“We’re right there. We shot 37 percent and we’re still in the game. With our home crowd and energy there for us, we can get the next one. We’ve got to get this next game. It’s a must-win for us. “ – Isaiah Thomas
Game 3 of the Eastern Conference playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers will be a must win for the Boston Celtics — that much is obvious. Point guard Isaiah Thomas stating that the Celtics are “right there” is a little more controversial, but he’s not wrong.
We are witnessing the progression of a best-of-seven series. The Celtics fixed a few of their issues from Game 1 to Game 2, and it showed. Cleveland’s talent won out again, and in all likelihood that talent will propel the Cavaliers into the next round, but that doesn’t mean the Celtics can’t take a game or two before that happens.
There seems to be a pretty obvious correlation between the Celtics’ ability to keep the Cavaliers off the glass, and their ability to keep the game within reach. Rebounding was always going to be an issue for the Celtics in this series. The Cavaliers have obvious rebounding and size advantages, but in the first half of Game 2 on Tuesday, the Celtics were matching the Cavaliers rebound for rebound. It got away from them in the second half, but if they needed any further proof that consistent boxing out is necessary, head coach Brad Stevens should show them how the first half of Game 2 played out. The point being, the Celtics’ rebounding issue is fixable, or at the very least, manageable for stretches of time. Despite Cleveland’s advantage, it doesn’t have to be debilitating for Boston.
The Celtics produced a much stronger defensive performance in Game 2, as Brad Stevens noted in his postgame press conference. In Game 1, the Celtics primarily used Marcus Smart on Kyrie Irving. Smart did a respectable job on Irving, but Kyrie still sunk tough shot after tough shot.
We saw a lot more of Avery Bradley on Irving in Game 2, and there was a noticeable uptick in defensive aggression. Bradley is a physical, hands-on defender. That can get him into trouble at times, but it was a gamble worth making for Stevens and the Celtics.
Bradley shot poorly for the second straight game, which makes Stevens’ decision to let him hound Irving for 30 minutes a lot easier to swallow. If Bradley isn’t shooting particularly well, it’s worth risking potential foul trouble if it results in making Irving uncomfortable, and I thought that’s exactly what happened.
In Game 2, the Celtics’ inability to score in the second half — coupled with LeBron James’ 15-point fourth quarter — requires Stevens’ attention heading into Game 3.
There is only so much you can do against a player like James. The combination of Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, and Jonas Jerebko has done an admirable job on LeBron, but I don’t think Stevens is going to find a LeBron James solution. Great players make great plays regardless of circumstances.
The Celtics can and will make offensive adjustments. It would help if some of their colder players, namely Bradley and Turner, can find their shots in Boston. I’m not ruling that out, either. Both have been solid contributors for Stevens this season, but haven’t been offensive threats against Cleveland thus far.
Game 2 was close enough that you could boil the result down to a few different key instances that, depending on home court, could have gone either way. Two fourth-quarter personal foul calls against Bradley immediately come to mind. He was called for a tough reach-in foul with about four minutes left, but the shooting foul call made by Bennett Salvatore on a fadeaway Kyrie Irving jumper was even more egregious. You can see Irving collapse to the ground under his own leg upon landing, but Salvatore bailed him out. It happens.
The officiating for most of this series has been fine. You could probably point out a few missed calls for both teams, but these kinds of questionable-at-best foul calls should go the Celtics’ way in Boston.
The upshot is, the Celtics are trending in the right direction. They have home court and a solid blueprint to follow; with a little fine-tuning, a Game 3 victory is achievable.
While most might view any Celtics win as futile, this is a huge team-building opportunity for Boston. Is there a difference between Cleveland winning in 4 games, as opposed to 6? Yes, absolutely.
The Celtics were not supposed to be here. That is sort of the point. What they are doing is special precisely because no one expected this from them.
If they can push Cleveland to six games, that would rate as a special accomplishment as well. Thursday night, we’ll see if pro basketball’s most storied franchise can create a moment that might mark the beginning of another prosperous era.