The Angles: Can Someone in Celtics-Cavaliers Cover a Road Game?
Al Horford and Tristan Thompson. Credit: David Richard -USA TODAY Sports
- One thing Boston might want to stop doing is attacking Kevin Love defensively one on one
- Betting on LeBron James in elimination games is never a bad idea
- This could legitimately be LeBron’s last home game in Cleveland … in his career.
Let’s explore key angles and action for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers (-7) and Boston Celtics.
WHERE THE ROAD MEETS THE FAILMENT: The Cavaliers are a -7.4 in Net Rating on the road in the playoffs, the Celtics -11.6. Boston is 2-5 ATS on the road in the playoffs and Cleveland 3-5, with two of those wins coming in what very much look like outlier performances against Toronto. These two teams just fall apart on the road.
These things are mystifying. Being worse on the road? OK, sure. But this bad? This consistently? It’s a little nuts until you start to consider the makeups of both teams.
The Cavaliers are an entirely offensive team. They held Boston to a 96.6 offensive rating in Cleveland, but it never really felt like spectacular defense from Cleveland as much as the Celtics just being unable to do anything right. Boston literally missed two dunks in Game 3, for crying out loud.
But Boston relies on role players right now because Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are out. Role players shoot better at home than they do on the road. So it would make sense that a team more heavily dependent on such players would struggle; there’s no star scorer in place to keep them grounded. (Al Horford is good enough to be considered a star, but he’s not a volume scorer. It’s just not in his DNA.)
Cleveland, meanwhile, as an entirely offensive team, needs shots to go down. When the Cavs are missing, they’re getting run on, and their transition defense is awful; the Cavs are surrendering 13.1 fast-break points per 100 possessions.
So in some ways, this makes sense. The Celtics make buckets at home behind their role players, which helps them set their defense. And Cleveland’s role players don’t shoot as well, which gets Boston’s underwhelming offense out in transition.
TOO MUCH LOVE: One thing Boston might want to stop doing is attacking Kevin Love defensively one on one.
The idea makes sense. Love’s the weakest point on the defense. But none of the Celtics is a great one-on-one scorer. If this was Irving or Hayward? Sure. But it’s not. Marcus Morris vs. anyone in isolation is not a mismatch for Boston, it’s a coin flip.
Love’s pretty comfortable doing this now. He’s been targeted every year for three years. He knows the deal, and he’s capable of holding his own against non-elite players (and Stephen Curry in a Game 7, apparently). This is not a viable strategy. What’s weird is how rarely the Celtics attack Kyle Korver. The 37-year-old has been tough in this series, especially in Game 4. But there’s still an opportunity in one-on-one coverage the Celtics aren’t taking advantage of to the degree they should.
Meanwhile, get Love moving where he has to guard multiple guys, and this happens:
This happens a lot where the Cavs try to overcompensate for Love and wind up blowing what should be an easy switch. Here, George Hill and Love both show on Marcus Smart (Marcus Smart, for God’s sake!) and just, you know, leave Morris open.
Look, if Marcus Smart goes off and schools you one on one, it’s not your day. But make it easier on yourself.
Where Boston does have the advantage, however, is with Horford. Horford is averaging six points per game on just 3.2 shots vs. Love per NBA.com’s matchup data:
But the weird part is that the Celtics’ offense goes into a pit. They’re averaging just 13 points on 12 possessions vs. Love per game. Take away the six points Horford creates, and the rest of the team is a mess.
And that leads us to:
CAVS HAVE TO MATCH UP: OK, for starters, what in God’s name is this:
I cannot give you a bigger sign that a coach is in over his head in a series than that. That is basically the “blurb” the water makes when someone goes under.
But here’s the other thing. The Celtics countered in Game 5 by going big, playing Aron Baynes to shore up their defense, and pounding the Cavs to bits with muscle. This deters LeBron James from driving, and once that happens, everything stagnates. So to get your offense going, clearly you counter with smallball, right?
Nope. Lue played Love and Tristan Thompson together against the Celtics’ Horford-Baynes combo for 23 minutes. They were outscored by 14 points. That’s your ballgame.
In this series overall, Love-Thompson has a 103 offensive rating vs. Horford-Baynes, and they’re being outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions. Lue has to counter this by sacrificing defense, going 5-out and playing them off the floor. Basically, playing small against their big lineup and then playing big vs. their small lineup to get Thompson facing Horford as much as possible.
We’ll see if Lue makes that adjustment. If he doesn’t, Brad Stevens gets the last key adjustment, and if you don’t neutralize that, it could be the series.
CAVALIERS -7: Put simply, they shoot better at home. But it’s not just that. They run actual offense. They do things like “move without the ball” and “dribble with purpose.” They look horrible on the road. They look amazing at home.
And then there’s LeBron. James openly admitted to “feeling out” the series in Game 1, which was pretty ridiculous considering this Cavs team is not good enough for him to do that, but whatever. Game 5 was genuinely one of the worst games we’ve seen from him in some time. However, he has responded with fury when facing the edge of oblivion in the past.
In 2011, LeBron was eliminated by the Mavericks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, finishing with 21 points, four rebounds and six assists.
Since then, these are his lines in elimination games:
Game 6, 2012 (Celtics): 45-15-5
Game 7, 2012 (Celtics): 31-12-2
Game 7, 2013 (Pacers): 32-8-4
Game 6, 2013 (Spurs): 32-10-11
Game 7, 2013 (Spurs): 37-12-4
Game 5, 2014 (Spurs): 31-10-5
Game 6, 2015 (Warriors) : 32-18-9
Game 5, 2016 (Warriors): 41-16-7
Game 6, 2016 (Warriors): 41-8-11
Game 7, 2016 (Warriors): 27-11-11
Game 4, 2017 (Warriors): 31-10-11
Game 5, 2017 (Warriors): 41-13-8
Game 7, 2018 (Pacers): 45-8-7
Average in elimination games since the 2011 elimination vs. Dallas: 35.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists. James-led teams are 10-3 straight up in those situations and a remarkable 9-4 against the spread, including 5-3 as a favorite ATS.
In other words, betting on LeBron is never a bad idea.
CELTICS (+7): That said, this is the worst Cavaliers team since James left in 2010. In that 2010 Game 6 in Boston before James was set to hit free agency? The Cavaliers lost and failed to cover as 1.5-point dogs. In the home Game 5 before it, the Cavaliers were 7.5-point favorites and were blown out.
But Boston wasn’t able to get much going in Cleveland in Games 3 and 4 of this year’s series. If a road team just plays decently well, just competently, it’ll be in a position to steal this series.
Boston has more adjustments to make and more balanced players. The Celtics’ offensive struggles are mitigated by an inherent Cavs identity that bleeds points constantly.
And much of this comes down to who actually controls their own destiny. The Celtics are switching everything, which is a viable strategy vs. the Cavaliers. It’s dependent on game-plan discipline (and the same is true for Warriors-Rockets, by the way).
Read this quote from Ty Lue about how to create movement vs. the switch:
Now, watch this play. Terry Rozier is switched onto LeBron in the post. The game plan, for the Raptors, for the Hawks in years past, for these Celtics, is to make LeBron work to score 60 on you and keep everyone else contained. But the Celtics can’t do it. They go to help Rozier, poor little guy, vs. big bad LeBron. The result? An open corner 3 from a knockdown shooter.
There’s good and bad to this. The bad for Boston is that it’s really hard to stay with that game plan. You instinctively want to help. But the good news is that if you stay home, if you make James do all the work. If you make his teammates into essentially dudes with really great seats for the game, you limit what they are offensively capable of, and they have no defense to back it up.
OVER 201.5: The over is 6-10 this postseason in Cavaliers games, including 3-5 at home. Cleveland is playing slow in these playoffs … but at a higher pace at home, with a 98 pace mark vs. 96 for the series. Additionally, that over/under number is lower than in Cleveland’s previous two home games in this series. Both cleared the 201.5 mark.
The wrench in this is Boston’s offense. It can absolutely vanish on the road, and when it goes cold, it goes sub-zero. The Celtics are more equipped to win a game like that … but they are also more likely to get run out of the gym to the point where even a blowout can’t save the over.
Blowouts won’t ensure the over because Boston’s floor is so low.
THE STAKES: This could legitimately be LeBron’s last home game in Cleveland … in his career. That’s crazy to think about, but it’s plausible. For Boston, this is all gravy. The Celtics took LeBron to an elimination game in the ECF. Lose, you had a great year and get Irving and Hayward back. Win and you reach a Finals no one expected you to make and you keep your super-underdog season alive.
For the Cavs, win and you force a young team to defend home court vs. LeBron in a Game 7 and keep your chances of … well, making the Finals alive. Lose, and everything could change. LeBron leaves, LeBron stays, no matter what, everything starts changing the minute this Cavs season ends.