BOSTON — The Boston Celtics crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers on the interior in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, taking advantage of Cleveland’s lack of a shot-blocker and the soft pick-and-roll defense to score 60 points in the paint.
That’s a crushing, almost embarrassing, number. When was the last time the Cavs even gave up so many paint points?
All the way back to a week and a half ago, when they gave up 62 to the Toronto Raptors in a 128-110 Game 2 victory. And that right there explains some of the complexity of this version of the Cavs.
At some point during the regular season, coach Ty Lue made a calculated concession. It was probably around the time the Cavs elected not to execute a deal for rim protection specialist DeAndre Jordan of the LA Clippers at the trade deadline and instead moved to add a collection of perimeter players.
The Cavs were rarely, if ever, going to win with defense. They ranked 29th in defensive efficiency in the regular season. In the playoffs, Cleveland’s numbers have improved. But they’re still 10th out of 16 teams to this point, and the only member of the final four group in the conference finals outside of the top four in playoff defense.
Knowing this, and knowing he didn’t really have the personnel to do much about it, Lue decided to employ game plans that just focused on simply outscoring the opposition. Give up a bunch of points because they have some defensive weak spots, yes, but deploy shooting-first lineups around LeBron James to outgun the opponent at the other end.
That’s how the Cavs got to Game 1 of a conference finals with a starting lineup that included Kyle Korver and Kevin Love, two of the weaker defenders at their positions in the league. In the series against the Raptors, Love and Korver combined to shoot 48 percent from 3-point range and the Cavs as a team shot 41 percent. As a result, lots of points — and not so many worries about the paint points. Four wins in four tries.
For all the credit being given to Boston coach Brad Stevens and his game plans, having Al Horford go after Love and Jaylen Brown go after Korver was hardly next-level strategizing. It looked really good when the Cavs missed their first 14 3-pointers and missed 22 of 26 overall. It’s hardly an ideal reality for a team chasing a championship, but if the Cavs don’t shoot well, then it’s hard for them to win at this level.
“We had a bad game,” Lue said succinctly. “I think missing shots offensively kind of carried over to our defense.”
Understanding this is important when considering what the Cavs have to judge going forward in the series, starting with Tuesday’s Game 2. From a basic tactical viewpoint, it makes perfect sense for Lue to adjust his lineup and take out Korver and put in Tristan Thompson, a better defender but a much weaker shooter.
When discussing the move Monday, Lue referenced Thompson’s defensive stats against Horford over the years. Here they are, via Second Spectrum tracking: Horford averages 14.96 points per 100 possessions when guarded by Thompson, his worst mark against any defender with at least 300 matchup possessions in the league.
Seeing as Horford crushed the Cavs in the pick-and-roll in Game 1, it seems like an easy move to promote Thompson. But as with many things with the Cavs, it isn’t simple. A case could even be made that going to Thompson in the starting lineup is playing into the Celtics’ hands because it takes a great 3-point shooter off the floor and makes the Cavs play more conventionally. And conventionally they’re still a terrible defensive team.
That’s why when the topic of a lineup changed was raised, the Celtics didn’t exactly cower.
“Well they become more traditional [with Thompson],” Horford said. “With Love at the 5, you have everybody out there that can shoot the ball. With Tristan, it’s more traditional coverages, being in the paint a lot more.”
In the first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, the Cavs struggled offensively. Lue mulled whether to go to Thompson until Game 7, finally inserting him in the starting lineup. He didn’t stay there, as Lue put Thompson back on the bench during the Raptors series.
On balance, Lue still keeps going back to what he decided during the regular season about the Cavs’ nature, which is that they put their best foot forward when they think offense first.
“Three-point shots are a part of our DNA,” James said. “It’s what makes us the best team that we can be.”
Knowing how the Celtics play and how they hunt matchup advantages, this was a decision point for the Cavs’ coaching staff in the run-up to the series. Just because Game 1 went the way it did doesn’t really make it easier.
“We weighed it before the series started,” Lue said. “But we won seven out of eight, and we weren’t going to adjust until someone beat us. We had played well with that lineup, and it got us to this point. Yes, we have to weigh that decision.”