The Cleveland Cavaliers have made a mockery of the idea that regular season performance is predictive of playoff performance. Remember when the Cavs struggled for 82 games with the league’s 22nd ranked defense? Welcome to the playoffs, where Cleveland’s defense ranks third of 16 teams and second only to the Warriors among teams that made it out of the first round.
The Celtics acquitted themselves well by winning Game 3 on the strength of one of Marcus Smart’s patented eruptions, and the trend continued through the first half of Game 4 when Boston appeared on the verge of making things really interesting. But a glance at PopcornMachine.Net’s GameFlow is like watching a risky stock you gambled on tank in the second half. Savvy investors know to stick with known quantities like Kyrie Irving, a proven champion who fended off the men in green with a playoff career-high 42 points that included 9-for-10 shooting in the third quarter.
Boston must likewise reassess its massive investment in Al Horford. When a team’s star point guard is lost to injury, who is the next man up? Presumably, it’s the player who was given a four-year max contract last summer and who makes $14.5 million more than the roster’s next highest-paid player. While regular-season samples aren’t predictive of postseason performance, a player’s previous work against the playoff version of an opponent can be. Thus, it should surprise no one that Boston is being outscored by 30 points per 100 possessions with Horford on court (the worst net rating among Celtics with at least 60 minutes) after Atlanta was -26 per 100 in Horford’s minutes in last year’s Cavs series (worse than every Hawk except Kent Bazemore).
Boston can still make this a series, but Horford will have to prove that he can make a difference. Win Game 5 at home and all the pressure shifts to Cleveland, which would then be forced to close out at home or face a Game 7 on the Celtics’ floor. Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko have provided valuable minutes, while Smart has been brilliant and Jaylen Brown has given all you could ask of a rookie. Much was made of Horford’s 15 total rebounds in Cleveland’s four-game sweep of the Hawks last season, and he currently sits at 18 rebounds through four games in this series.
Game 5 Prediction
The Cavs know that a Warriors team that threatens to become among the league’s all time best awaits. Cleveland can’t afford to expend more energy by allowing Boston to extend the series. LeBron James has only spent 34 minutes of this series on the bench. Look for Game 5 to be the Cavaliers’ strongest of the postseason. It will be more than the depleted Celtics can overcome.
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