The Boston Celtics had absolutely no answers for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James repeatedly tortured whichever defender the Celtics put in front of him in a dominant victory that gave Cleveland home-court advantage and made it clear which team really sits atop the East, irrespective of seeding.
A lot of things have to go right for the Celtics to make the Cavs sweat. Canning a few more of the open shots they’re able to create would be nice:
The Celtics did create some open looks + opportunities early, but miss enough + you're down 15 before you know it. https://t.co/ZbeBpMbnsE
But even when Boston did get its offense untracked in the second half, scoring 65 points on 58.1 percent shooting with 10 3-pointers, the Celtics never really threatened the Cavs because they couldn’t get enough stops to meaningfully reduce the deficit. To slow LeBron and company down, the Celtics have to find a way to make them uncomfortable; if that means increased physicality and uglying up the proceedings come Friday’s Game 2, Cavs guard J.R. Smith says Cleveland will be prepared.
“Whenever their backs are up against the wall, they tend to play better, just like we do,” Smith said after the game, according to BDL’s Ben Rohrbach. “We just got to expect that and understand there might be dirty plays, might be cheap shots coming from the other side, just because they are fighting for their lives at this point.”
The Celtics showed some of that fight in the third quarter, ripping off a 15-4 run sparked by noted chaos agent and catalyst Marcus Smart, who took it upon himself to get under the skin of board-dominating Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson:
After the game, Thompson — who finished with a career-playoff-high 20 points on perfect 7-for-7 shooting to go with nine rebounds, six of which came on the offensive glass — said he and Smart had no personal beef, and that the play came out of the Celtics’ guard’s ever-revving motor.
“He plays hard,” Thompson said of Smart, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN. “He does the same thing I do. He’s a guard that plays hard, and you got to respect it. He leaves it all on the line, and he kind of gives them that boost.”
Sometimes, chippiness is in the eye of the beholder. Whether or not you think Isaiah Thomas deliberately reached out and tried to grab hold of Kevin Love’s ankle after hitting the deck on a drive with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter …
… probably depends greatly on which team you’re supporting in this series.
Asked after the game for his take on the matter, Love — who torched the C’s, finishing with 32 points on 9-for-16 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point land, with 12 rebounds — demurred, according to Rohrbach: “Yeah, I mean, I didn’t see it, truthfully. I don’t know the play.”
And then there was the offensive foul that Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk — whose relativelevel of dirtiness became a major topic of conversation in Round 2 — picked up late in the first quarter when he grabbed Thompson’s arm to prevent him from rotating over to pick up a driving Jaylen Brown:
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) May 18, 2017
As you might imagine, that particular play from that particular player didn’t go over well with Cavs fans, who still remember very vividly how Olynyk dislocated Love’s left shoulder in Game 4 of the opening round of the 2015 playoffs. Later in that game, Smith got himself ejected (and later suspended) for clocking Jae Crowder in the jaw with a backfist while fighting for rebounding position:
The Cavs had better hope that J.R.’s not quite that “ready” for dirty or chippy play this time around. Two years ago, losing rotation players left the Cavs short-handed on their run to the Finals. This summer, they can’t afford that. More from McMenamin:
The Cavs, 9-0 this postseason with a potential Finals three-peat against the Golden State Warriors looming on the horizon, are aware that responding to any “dirty plays” from the Celtics with flagrant action of their own could affect their chances of repeating.
Thompson said the Cavs are above that.
“I’m not going to do that,” Thompson told ESPN. “We’re on a mission. I’m not about to let a player take me out of my element and force me to do something very AAU-ish by retaliating. Save that for the AAU games.”
We’ll see if Thompson and company can maintain that level of zen if the Celtics crank up the pressure when the series resumes on Friday.
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