Many NBA fans have been excited for the potential second rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Last year’s NBA Finals included arguably as much drama and intrigue as any in recent history. This season both teams have been playing well and by many metrics were the two best teams in the regular season.
In the playoffs, the two teams have been steamrolling opponents, making an NBA Finals rematch appear to be all but certain. While fans indeed have been waiting for the potential to continue the rivalry between the two teams, they also wait for the rematch for another reason.
The playoffs so far have largely lacked drama, which can be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. There had been a chance that the two NBA Finals opponents would have arrived without having lost a single game. The possibility that the two NBA Finals teams would be undefeated sounds intriguing but is also solid proof that the playoffs have lacked drama for the two best postseason teams so far.
On Sunday, the Cavaliers, who came out to the Space Jam Monstars theme music due to their seemingly unbeatable play, lost to the Boston Celtics in Game 3. The game ended with everyone holding their breath, waiting for Celtic’s guard Avery Bradley’s three-pointer to finish bouncing around the rim. When the ball finally dropped, the Celtics had finally finished the upset, coming back from a 21-point deficit and leaving the Cavaliers stunned.
In stealing Game 3, the Celtics saved NBA fans by injecting a little drama into this series and prevented both the Cavaliers from entering the Finals undefeated.
Marcus Smart helped us appreciate the heart the Celtics have when describing the moment the team found out at halftime of Game 2 that Isaiah Thomas had been hurt and that he wouldn’t be returning for the remainder of the playoffs.
“IT [Isaiah Thomas] sent out a text saying and let us know he was not gonna be with us anymore. That was devastating. He’s a big key to this team,” Smart said. “So, we lost our brother who couldn’t be in this battle with us, we understand it, we thank him for it. But he kept talking to us and you know you can still do it. Everyone was counting us out and we just kept believing in ourselves.”
Smart spoke highly of Thomas as a leader, a supportive teammate and what he meant to the team. Yet it was Thomas’s absence that gave Smart the opportunity to have a career game with 27 points, seven assists and five rebounds while hitting seven of 10 three-pointers.
Avery Bradley hit a similar note, saying the following after losing Game 2 and Thomas to injury.
“It was hard. You know it was embarrassing. I know everyone leaving the arena after last game, we were all pretty down. Once we were able to get together the next day, we decided that we’re just going to go out and play hard,” Bradley said. “We knew that if we came out and played hard we would give ourselves a chance. We saw that tonight and we’re going to continue to play like that the rest of series.”
Although he didn’t shoot well from the field (8-23), Bradley scored twenty points and helped to orchestrate this victory. Led by Bradley and Smart, who together led the team in minutes played, the Celtics stepped up on a night in which nearly everyone expected the Celtics to lose, including Las Vegas odds makers.
However, LeBron James touched on Thomas’s absence from a different angle.
“They play so freely without IT,” James said. “And they just made play, after play, after play and we couldn’t weather the storm.”
The Celtics moved the ball, didn’t have to wait for Thomas to initiate most of the action on offense and everyone got involved and contributed. As Thomas and Smart said, they were determined to play hard and not back down. In this game, six different players scored in double figures for the Celtics, including backup forward Jonas Jerebko, who had previously been out of the rotation. In fact, Jerebko hit a big shot on a play that had been originally designed for Bradley.
“I mean [the play] was for me to lay the ball up,” Smart stated. “But it was a play that I knew that if they helped, Jonas [Jerebko] would be wide open and he was able to knock down the shot.”
In addition, the Celtics were now no longer relying on a player who is severely undersized on the defensive end and can create a number of negative defensive mismatches, which can hurt the team. According to ESPN’s Defensive RPM metric, Thomas ranks dead last among point guards (by far) with a -4.17 score. Thomas is an unbelievable player and it’s hard to argue they are better without him. However, for one game, the Celtics played with energy, rallied without their fallen leader and exploited the advantages of playing without him.
The Celtics brought more energy and caught the Cavaliers off guard. And even though a number of things had to go in favor of the Celtics for them to win this close game, the Cavaliers were reminded that they are beatable, especially when James has an off night.
“I had a tough game period,” James said bluntly. “Me personally, I didn’t have it.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens discussed the team’s approach to guarding LeBron.
“Well, first of all, I think there is only so much you can do. We just tried to be as solid as possible. We tried to switch a little bit less.” Stevens said. “We have a couple of guards that are bigger guards. And we just tried to rotate bodies on him.”
Without Thomas, the Celtics were able to use a bevy of bigger guards and forwards on James to attempt to disrupt his play. James can reflect on how a suddenly more capable defense was able to hold him to only 11 points to go along with six rebounds and six assists, while missing all four of his three-point attempts and figure out what he can do to adjust as he also prepares for the NBA Finals.
Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue described James’s off night.
“He’s human, he’s going to have a night like this,” Lue said. “He didn’t shoot the ball well and we still had a 20-point lead.”
The Cavaliers need to be able to compensate when James is being defended well and is having a poor game. When discussing this loss, which certainly is a disappointment for a team that had been playing so well, James struck a more positive note after the game.
“I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did,” James said. “I feel that some adversity is all part of the postseason. I feel like you have to have some adversity in order to be successful.”
Winning without much resistance, without having to fight back from deficits and fight back on nights when your best player or players aren’t playing well can be detrimental in the long run. Looking forward, this game can serve as a wake-up call or a learning experience on how to adjust when James is limited or when another team is rolling.
“And so, I’m glad, I mean, if it was going to happen [letdown loss], let it happen now and let us regroup,” James said. “Let us regroup and get back to playing desperate basketball which they did tonight and so we got to be a lot better.”
James recognizes this as an opportunity to be humbled and embrace the need for better effort and a sense of urgency. When the NBA Finals do finally come around, the Cavaliers will most likely be the underdogs and perhaps this learning moment will help them adapt more effectively.
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