Tristan Thompson (13) has been a force for the Cavaliers against the Celtics. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Coming into this series, the Celtics knew they were going to have their hands full with LeBron James. They knew Kyrie Irving could score and big man Kevin Love could knock down big shots from behind the arc. They were well aware of JR Smith and his streaky ability to catch fire in spurts. All four of those players have had big moments in the first three games.
But they may have underestimated the impact of Tristan Thompson.
As a matter of fact, he may be the difference in the series so far coming off Cleveland’s bench. Thompson has controlled the offensive glass and given the Cavaliers second chance after second chance. Against a team with the aforementioned weaponry, that’s a formula for disaster.
There was no better example than in the final three minutes Thursday after Evan Turner‘s three-ball drew the Celtics to within three, 95-92, with 2:45 left. The Celtics appeared to have stopped the Cavaliers on a missed runner from Irving. But there was Thompson, the 6-foot-9 space-eater in the paint. He hauled down the rebound and quickly found Irving again, who dished to Love for an open three on the left wing. Love, who had forever to set himself, knocked it down. 98-92, with just 2:13 left.
With 51.9 seconds left and the Cavs lead just five, 98-93, James missed a jumper but there was that big man in the middle again. Thompson found LeBron, who found Love again. Three-pointer. Ball game.
Thompson had five of Cleveland’s 11 offensive rebounds Thursday in the 103-95 Game 3 win. On Tuesday, he hauled in five of his team’s 12 second chance rebounds. That’s 10 offensive rebounds in a pair of eight-point wins.
The Celtics turned up the physical tone Thursday night in an effort to show big, bad LeBron that they’re not scared of them. But coach Brad Stevens lamented the fact that the physical presence didn’t keep the Cavs off the offensive glass at key times.
“I think we’ve been pretty physical but we haven’t been able to get rebounds as well,” Stevens said. “We really had a five man rebounding mindset. But still, second-chance points seem to be magnified in this series. And they seem to be happening at critical, critical times for them. We cut it to one in the third quarter; they get a rebound, kick-out three. And we’re not in the play to get that ball. Love’s three off of Thompson’s rebound late ‘ those are killers.
“And we haven’t been very timely in finishing plays in those regards the whole series. But, obviously, we were just trying to get over the hump, over the hump. Played poorly at the end of the second half, that really hurt us, and just dug ourselves too big of a hole. You know, sometimes as a coach you overanalyze it. They hit a couple shots that were ‘ nice job. Nice bank [shot] by Lebron, which he clearly meant to do. Like, I saw him shoot it like he was trying to bank it. It was a great shot. It was the angle that he wasn’t being contested at that he shot it. It was amazing. And then JR Smith’s shots were huge.
“We’ve got to play better basketball. And I don’t mean to sound that general, and I’m sorry I do, but we have to play better basketball. We have to play better on both ends. I told the guys in there, and I believe this line, and I don’t know who said it so I apologize to the person that originally said it, but when considering the consequences of not doing the little things, you realize there are no little things. That applies to us right now.”
Give the Celtics this much: They’re making the first-round series hard for the heavily-favored Cavaliers.
After Thursday’s 103-95 win over the Celtics in Game 3, putting Cleveland up 3 games to none, Cavs coach Dave Blatt acknowledged the battle he’s getting from Brad Stevens, and the leadership he needs from LeBron James.
“I all fairness, we do have players that have been in this situation, that have played these kind of games,” Blatt said. “LeBron’s leadership obviously a huge factor, because he’s the guy that not only guys follow but they feel him, they sense him and his control in these games has been outstanding both in terms of seizing the moment, but also talking guys through situations.
“Coach [Stevens] is right. I think we have showed maturity and poise in how we are playing. This was not an easy game and honestly none of the three games have been easy. Coach Stevens is doing a terrific job with his team and they are competing and playing us tough as it should be in the playoffs.
“Obviously, the job’s not done. We have to win another game. One of the reasons we’ve won these games is that we have respected our opponent, not look past even the game in front of us. Understanding that if we do, we could put ourselves in trouble. We’re going to respect our opponent and come out and compete and play the best game we can possibly play on Sunday.”
What’s been the difference so far for Blatt’s Cavaliers?
“I think our maturity and the fact obviously that we have finishers on our team, guys that know how to finish games,” Blatt said. “Both teams are playing really hard. Both teams are competing. Both teams are very capable. I just think as team we have more maturity but that doesn’t guarantee anything. We’ve got to come out and win another game before I summarize the differences. We’re still in the fight. Boston’s not going away. They haven’t up to this point and they won’t. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
It was James who accompanied JR Smith to the Garden at 9 a.m. Thursday to get a jump start on the shootaround, trying to find the winning edge.
Now, it’s Brad Stevens who must try to find that same winning edge in his players. Stevens was asked Thursday what he sees as the keys that have put Cleveland up, 3-0.
“We’ll see at the end of the series, right? And I’ll be better-able to say it, and I want to get ready to go and want to make sure that we play as well as possible for however many games we have left,” Stevens said. “But obviously No. 23 is one. And I thought they made some ‘ and obviously they’ve got other very talented guys, right? ‘ I thought Love made huge shots, I thought Irving made huge shots, and then JR Smith.
“He went to a different level than he’s been in the first two games. So I think all of those guys, and then you add in the [Tristan] Thompsons and the rebounders and all those guys, so you’ve got all these guys that are good players around the super super-stars and they just become better when they’re around them. And that’s what the great ones do; they make everybody else rise up.”
The fun part about watching this Celtics team is the number of leaders that have emerged from unexpected places, like 24-year-old Jae Crowder. It was Crowder who said Wednesday he was in no way intimidated by LeBron James and the Cavaliers as the series shifted back to Boston.
“I know a lot was made out of what he said [Wednesday], but the bottom line is, Jae’s not scared,” Stevens said. “He’s not scared. He’s not going to play ‘ he’s not going to play in a way that he’s going to back down from anybody, which I really appreciate about him. He plays really hard, he is a very good defender, he’s a very versatile defender, and he made huge shots and made huge plays at the rim for us. He’s been a great addition. Just a great addition. It’s been fun to coach him.”
LeBron James has had a lot of different experiences in Boston.
After pushing the Celtics to the brink of elimination Thursday night with 31 points and 11 rebounds in a 103-95 win in Game 3, basketball’s preeminent superstar reflected on what winning as a visitor means in Boston.
James was asked about what ran through his mind Thursday as he played Boston in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, when he was eliminated in the same building in Game 6 of the Eastern semifinals, his final game in a Cavaliers uniform before heading off to Miami.
“Most all of the players are different [except for] Brandon Bass being on those teams. It’s the same for me. I get great feelings, I get eerie feelings when I come into this building. I’ve been on both sides of the fence here.”
James has always been reviled by Boston fans but considers himself in some select company, joining Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant as great opposing players who found a way to win in a hostile environment.
“The great thing about being here, these fans are loyal to one thing and one thing only, and that’s green. That’s all they see. That’s all they care about. For me being a competitor and for me being a competitor, someone they know personally, to be able to come out here and perform in front of those guys, it means a lot because they know the game. They know basketball. They know sports. It’s a sports town. Between them, the Patriots, the Bruins and the Red Sox, they know sports. For me to be able to have some type of history in this city, it means a lot I guess for my legacy.”
James, of course, needs one more win for his first playoff victory in Boston. He is 0-2, losing not only in 2010 but two years earlier in the Eastern semis in an epic seven-game series that saw him outscore Paul Pierce 45-41 in Game 7 in Boston.
James, despite some early missed layups, took over the game Thursday from the start. He scored 11 in the second quarter and keyed a 12-0 run before halftime that turned a four-point hole into a 56-48 Cleveland lead at the half.
“I wanted to be aggressive, I love road games in the playoffs,” James added. “I get up for those games even more than the home games. I love the adversity that comes with it. I love going against the opposing fans, the opposing team and everything that comes with it so for me it was my approach and even though I missed some very makeable layups early, I just think my aggressiveness is starting to hit home for our team and they’re just following my lead after that.”
But his team, most of which is experiencing the playoffs for the first time, was not up to the task at big moments Thursday night.
As a result, the Celtics fell in an 0-3 hole with a 103-95 loss to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. The Celtics committed 15 turnovers. They also had key meltdowns at the end of each half that proved deadly. They allowed the Cavaliers to close the first half with a 12-0 run to take a 56-48 lead. And they allowed the Cavaliers off the hook when they drew to within three on an Evan Turner three with 2:45 left. The Cavs closed the game with a 10-3 run.
“The bottom line tonight was we didn’t play with any poise,” Stevens said. “I don’t know if it was the terrific environment in there, if we were just ‘ I don’t know if it was down 0-2, I don’t know what they deal was, but I thought they really played with poise and in control; we did not. And I thought that was the biggest difference in the game. Our effort was great, we played really hard, but we’ve got to play better. We’ve got to play better. And we’ve said it over and over. It’s an eight-point game at the end of the day, and there’s so many possessions that we threw away.”
But Turner, whom Stevens praised, for playing a great game, disagreed with Stevens’ assessment.
“He said our poise wasn’t good. I think that’s a little strong because we were on the bench encouraging each other. I think we bounced back, I don’t know in regards to poise but I think we were resilient. We had a lot of comebacks and we had a lot of runs and we had a lot of tough runs that led to success for them but you know, to be down three with a minute or two minutes left, it’s somewhat great, but obviously, I don’t think we did a great job to fully help us get over the hump.
“It’s definitely frustrating. It’s definitely tough, especially being out there, we’re battling back and every time we’re coming close they get a big offensive rebound for a big three. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why it was tough today but to really harp on those key moments, we’ve done a lot more stuff in order to be behind and obviously that’s just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Tristan Thompson’s really talented at what he does, he’s been doing it all season, but I think we have a lot of other things we need to do as well, but that’s definitely something that sends us overboard I would say.”
Jae Crowder was on the stage next to Turner and sided with his teammate.
“I mean, down three with a minute to go, you just got to fight through it,” Crowder said. “If we felt like we didn’t play with poise, you still have to fight through it. I felt like we responded well with the turnovers that we had late, we gave ourselves a chance we just got to get that rebound and see what happens after that. But other than that, you got to play through the turnovers and just try to capitalize on the next possession.”
Now the job is for Stevens and the Celtics to regroup and attempt to accomplish something no NBA team has ever accomplished. Rebound from an 0-3 hole.
“You have a game Sunday,” Stevens said. “You prepare for the game. Play to the best of your ability.
“You hope you learn from this experience tonight. We’ve got a lot of guys doing this for the first time, and I thought in some ways that, again, we played with tremendous energy, we played with great spirit, but we just didn’t make good, sound basketball plays most of the night.
Trailing by three late in the fourth quarter, the Celtics had a chance to tie Game 3 at home, but failed to corral an offensive rebound, and Kevin Love made them pay with a wide-open 3-pointer with 2:13 remaining. And once again, the C’s submitted an inspired effort, but had no answer for LeBron James, who amassed 31 points and 11 rebounds in a 103-95 victory that gave his Cavaliers a 3-0 series lead.
The Celtics‘ last opportunity to avoid a sweep comes in Game 4 at the Garden on Sunday afternoon.
On Thursday, Evan Turner enjoyed his best game of the series, collecting 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but failed to match a dominant performance by the game’s greatest active player. Jae Crowder added 16 points, seven rebounds and four assists off the bench, and Avery Bradley scored 18, albeit on 18 shots. Jared Sullinger (10 points, 8 rebounds) was the only other Celtic in double figures.
In the first 1:18, LeBron James got to the rim with ease on back-to-back possessions, giving the Cavaliers an early 4-0 lead. After an uncontested 3-pointer from Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov beat Tyler Zeller on the block twice in a row — dunking over the C’s center and driving around him for an uncontested layup. A third drive to the basket delivered Cleveland a 15-10 lead and forced the first Celtics timeout.
MARCUS SMART MAINTAINS
Following Game 2, when the Cavs rattled off run after run to take control of the series, Celtics coach Brad Stevens asked his team to limit Cleveland’s offensive spurts to four or five points rather than eight or nine, admitting such a task is “easier said than done.” Despite the early defensive lapses, the C’s did a nice job stemming the tide, and it was their rookie point guard who provided the spark. In a span of two minutes midway through the opening quarter, Smart twice trimmed the deficit to two with a 3-pointer and an impressive and-one, helping the Celtics limit the damage to 31-25 in the first.
THE GARDEN AWAKES
Midway through the second quarter, following a Smart miss, Jae Crowder forced a jump ball with Mozgov. Somehow, the C’s came away with it, and Jonas Jerebko grabbed an offensive rebound off a Zeller miss. Another Zeller miss led to Crowder’s strip of Kevin Love, and Zeller finally got his running layup. It was a remarkable show of hustle and heart, and the home crowd rewarded them with a deafening applause, offering a reminder that the playoff experience is valuable for a young team, even if it ends in the first round. The energy ignited a 9-0 run that gave the C’s a 40-38 lead with 5:37 left before the half.
While Stevens played the same starting five he had all series, he insisted he would have a quicker hook, and that proved the case. The Celtic coach inserted Jerebko and Crowder to start the third quarter in place of Smart and Brandon Bass. That group enjoyed mixed success, beginning the frame with an 8-0 run that erased a 56-48 halftime deficit and tied the game. But once Kyrie Irving made his first shot of the game — a 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim and in for a 70-66 advantage midway through the third — the floodgates opened. Cleveland’s big three combined for an 11-point run that stretched the Cavs lead to 78-66. Third-quarter runs had killed the Celtics all series, and Game 3 was no different.
SHOOTING THEMSELVES IN THE FOOT
With the Celtics trailing by seven in the fourth quarter and desperately needing a basket, Avery Bradley took a 19-foot jump shot relatively early in the shot clock — the kind of low percentage shot that the Houston Rockets have all but removed from their offense. Perhaps it stemmed from a lack of confidence at the 3-point line, as the Celtics shot just 5-of-19 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers made double-digit 3’s (12-29 3P) for the second time this series. The Celtics entered the game just 14-of-44 from distance, as opposed to a 20-of-60 mark for Cleveland — a negligible difference in percentage, but a more significant edge on the scoreboard that could be negated with fewer long 2’s and more 3-point attempts, particularly in a trio of close games in the fourth quarter.