Entering Wednesday’s de facto playoff game as the two teams duel for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, I was fully and mentally prepared for the Cleveland Cavaliers to lose to the Boston Celtics. The Cleveland Cavaliers were playing on the road and on the second night of a back-to-back, a set of circumstances under which the Cavaliers have not thrived this season, as evidenced by the1 chart below. Compounding matters, the Cavs only recently emerged from a March funk, the Cavs’ starting center was not playing for the first time since the Mesozoic Era (roughly), and the Celtics hadn’t played since Sunday afternoon, giving them two-plus days to convince themselves they were worthy of being the baddest mofos in the Eastern Conference.
A reason not to worry about the Cavs: no back-to-backs on the road in the playoffs. pic.twitter.com/JpNNLuzUrY
— Kyle (@kcwelch330) March 15, 2017
And what do you know? The Cavs went into the Gahden and played their most complete basketball game against a high-caliber team in months. Let’s investigate the crime scene of this whacking.
+32 – When asked about the big-ness of Wednesday’s game against the Celtics on Tuesday night, LeBron James said, “I’ve been to six straight NBA Finals—I’m the last person to ask about a regular season game.” Well for someone who pretended to be nonchalant about the Cavs’ most meaningful game since Game 7 of the NBA Finals, James was thoroughly merciless. James finished with 36 points on a stupid 14-of-22 shooting (63.6 percent), and added 10 rebounds while sinking all seven of his free throws. He bullied the Celtics all night, getting to the rim with an almost offensive ease and — again —disarming nonchalance. His effort culminated in a plus/minus of +32 in 38 minutes, while the next best Cavalier had a +19. He also blocked Isaiah Thomas Kerri Walsh-style with two hands in the second quarter, something we probably only see in the NBA a few dozen times per year.2 Playoff LeBron is coming soon and I’m so excited I just peed myself a little bit.
— Kyle (@kcwelch330) April 6, 2017
59.2 – James’ effective field goal percentage3 is 59.2 percent, the highest in the league among players playing more than 35 minutes per game. James Harden’s effective field goal percentage is 52.4, and Russell Westbrook’s is 47.8. Fifty-nine is just a bonkers number and should really only be feasible for center and power forwards who never shoot more than three-feet from the hoop and half of whose field goal attempts are tip-slams and lobs at the basket. This is all a roundabout way of saying that James is playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career, only narrowly behind the 2012-14 stretch in Miami when James’ effective field goal percentage was 60+, which basically seems impossible in hindsight.
15 & 16 – Despite shooting only 5-of-15 (33.3 percent), Kevin Love had a tremendous game. Whilst only scoring 15 points, Kevin Love demonstrated why he’s an All-Star, impacting the game in a variety of other ways. Love gobbled up 16 rebounds (crucial with Tristan Thompson out), moved the ball extremely well (even though he only received credit for one assist), ignited some fast breaks with his great outlet passes, and defended really well as he was asked to show hard on every pick-and-roll with Isaiah Thomas while also defending Al Horford (who only finished with 12 points and seven rebounds).
38 – Who’s that there with 38 double-doubles, 12th most in the league? Kevin “Bad M-Fer” Love, that’s who. That’s despite only playing 57 games. Love’s on pace to have had 48 double-doubles had he played in 72 games, which would have put him in the top-10 and on par with Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond. Let’s not forget Love is one of six dudes in the NBA who average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. I can see why Boston fans made so many fake rumors about the Cavs trading Love to them over the past three seasons.
447 – Tristan Thompson’s consecutive games-played streak concluded on Wednesday night, missing the game with a sprained thumb. All indications are that Thompson is OK, but let’s take a moment to appreciate the Iron Man of Cleveland’s streak: 447 is nothing to sneeze at. That’s five-plus seasons … in a row. Four hundred forty-seven games without a twisted ankle, without a bruised knee, without a case of “the White Castle I ate last night is instigating an insurrection in my intestines.” How long has it been? Here’s the box score from the last Cavalier game Tristan Thompson didn’t play in. No matter how crummy your life is today, just remember that nothing can be as bad as having to watch Alonzo Gee play 32 minutes for your basketball team.
— Jacob L. Rosen (@JacobLRosen) April 5, 2017
The best part about this? We never again have to hear Jeff Van Gundy complain on a broadcast about how Thompson’s streak was illegitimate because he only checked in for like 30 seconds during an 82nd game of the season.4 Our long national nightmare is over, everyone!
13 – Everyone on the Cavaliers did their best Tristan Thompson impression in his absence, totaling 13 offensive rebounds — that’s nearly four more than their season average while missing Thompson’s 3.7 per game. Eight of those offensive boards came in the first quarter, when the Cavaliers were struggling to make shots (shooting only 25.9 percent in the frame). Kevin Love had five of those ORBs and Channing Frye (who played admirably with Thompson out) had three.
38 to 22 – Like Tuesday’s game against the Magic, the Cavaliers used a dominant quarter to propel them to victory. After a worrisome first quarter (only 19 points), the Cavaliers outscored the Celtics 38 to 22 in the second quarter before pushing the DeLorean to 88 and taking off, accelerating through the third quarter and powering to a 23-point win over their Eastern Conference rivals.
91 – The Cavalier held the Celtics to 91 points on Wednesday, only the second time in 10 games in which the Cavs have held a team to under 100 points. The Cavs played some of their best defense in recent memory, mainly attributable to their activity (even though they only generated 12 turnovers, which is basically their season average).
If you’re looking for the “recipe” for how the Cavs can turn around the defense, it’s by attacking teams on the pick-and-roll — something they’ve done sparingly in the regular season. Because Isaiah Thomas is far and away the Celtics’ biggest scoring threat, the Cavs showed hard all night, forcing Thomas to either pass or go around another defender. It also forces the Cavs to scramble and get moving — creating a chaos that the Cavs handle surprisingly well. Even though Thomas scored 26 points (with about four of those coming off cheap free throws), the Cavs disrupted him and the Celtics enough to slow down their offense. While showing hard on Thomas in the pick-and-roll is effectively a double team that leaves other players open, the Celtics must rely on the Marcus Smarts (1-of-8) and Jae Crowders to knock down shots if the Cavs take that approach. That’s a prefereable alternative to letting Thomas torch you.
The Cavaliers are 18-3 (.857) when holding to teams to 100 or fewer points, and only 33-24 (.579) when allowing more than 100. This defense thing can be pretty great. The Cavs should try it more often.
1.5 – The Cavaliers have a one-game lead on the Boston Celtics for the top seed in the Eastern Conference which is effectively a 1.5 game lead with the Cavs owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. So, the Cavs are basically going to need to drop at least two of their last four games to allow the Celtics to regain the top seed. And with that … ordered was restored in the Eastern Conference again. All is well in The Kingdom. Tonight, anyway.