Brad Stevens sounded an cautious yet optimistic tone Tuesday night after his team dropped a 99-91 decision to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena that put his Celtics in a 2-0 series hold heading back to Boston for Game 3 Thursday night.
“We have another game to play,” Stevens said. “We have another game to prepare for. We have to prepare to the best of our ability. We’ve been of a collective mindset of the only day that matters is today and you move on to what’s next. I know that gets really old to hear but I think it’s the only way to live and certainly the only way to live in this business and it allows you to keep your focus on the task at hand.”
For the second straight game, the Celtics managed to outscore the Cavaliers after one quarter, leading 16-8 at one point. They were hanging tough heading into halftime in both games. Tuesday, they trailed by just one, 51-50, at the break. But in each of the first two games, Boston has laid a collective egg in the third quarter. Tuesday, they were outscored 17-4 out of the halftime break. The Celtics battled back but could never completely climb out of the hole.
“They came out both times very good but we were very poor at the start of the third,” Stevens said. “Both times I thought we were slow coming out of the gates for whatever reason. Again, they’re going to have their runs but their runs can’t become 9-0, 11-0, 13-0 or whatever it is. We’ve got to stop them at five or six and make it a 5-2 run or a 7-4 run. Easier said than done. Everybody glorifies the guy who makes the last-second shot. But the guy who can stop a run, that’s big-time toughness. We’ve got to be able to do that a little bit better and we’ve got guys in our room capable of doing that.
“Nobody has ever played a perfect basketball game, right? But you’re on a quest to play perfect in what you can control. We were good but we weren’t near good enough. But we did play better in a lot of ways. This team will compete and I feel pretty comfortable saying we’ll compete. We just have to be a little bit tighter. And that’s because of the game demands that and it’s also because our opponent is awfully good.”
The Celtics were downright dominant on the offensive glass in the first half, holding a 7-1 edge and outscoring Cleveland 12-2 in second chance points. But that changed drastically in the second half, as the Cavs outscored the Celtics 16-4 in second chance points and 9-4 on the offensive glass.
“I thought we were great in the first half on the glass,” Stevens said. “I thought at the end of the game, those offensive rebounds by [Tristan] Thompson obviously separated. When we were coming back, those were huge, huge plays. But the third quarters killed us both games. That’s been where we’ve been fighting from behind from that point on in both games.”
Then there’s LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. James scored 15 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter while Irving finished with 26.
“They’re good players. Obviously, they’re great players,” Stevens said. “I thought we challenged Kyrie a little bit better. He’s a hard one because he gets fouled on some of those jump shots. That tough. He’s a really explosive ball handler and scorer. And then when LeBron just puts his shoulder down and wants to get where he wants to go, it’s hard to stop him from getting there. But I thought our guys actually did a pretty good job on different plays. Evan [Turner], especially on the one play where LeBron floated across the lane and ended up shooting that fadeaway going left.
“Those guys are hard to stop. That’s why we can’t start third quarters slowly and that’s why we’ve got to finish plays and that’s why every issue we’re having is magnified.”
Stevens watched as Irving and James drove to the basket time after time when Cleveland need a response to several Boston charges in the fourth. Stevens admitted there’s only so much you can do to defend James when he’s on a mission to the basket.
“He’s obviously a great competitor,” Stevens said. “He’s also the most physically talented and one of the best certainly mental players in the game. You add that together you’ve got a heck of a guy and heck of player. It’s why he’s considered one of the all-time and why he’s considered the best in the game right now. Yes, he made those plays. Yes, he can make those plays. The jump shots obviously. The one was well contested. The second one wasn’t as well contested.
“I thought for the most part we made those guys earn everything they got. I think that’s a step in the right direction from Game 1 but I still think we can hopefully improve a little bit on those guys but I think it’s the other stuff that’s really been magnified because you can’t give up offensive rebounds when you work so hard to keep those two guys from making a shot. You can’t give up transition baskets when you know that you’re going to have to work so hard, regardless, and they may score anyways.
“We talked about it the other day. I want to take away the transition baskets and I want to take away the offensive rebound baskets. They’re going to score some in the lane. They’re going to score some from behind the arc. We’ve got to minimize those other things. I hate to sound like a broken record but I think that’s a huge, huge key for us to be successful. But if you hold them to 99 points, you’ve got a shot to win. I thought our defense was drastically better than the last game.
“I thought they kicked it into a gear a little bit. We built that eight-point lead in the first half and bang, it’s back down to three. I think that’s pretty typical of them. You can feel like you’re going pretty well and then you can feel like you’re being steamrolled very quickly. We have to do a better job of responding so those 9-0 runs don’t become 9-0 runs. They end at five and you score to kind of stem the tide. It’s easier said than done. Again, I’m encouraged by our defense today. I thought our offense wasn’t quite as good. They played good defense on their end. I also think we were in a three possession game and we shot 38 percent. So, it’s not bad and you hold them to 99, you feel pretty good about your chances if you even make a few of those, knock a few of those in.”