CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (58-36) at BOSTON CELTICS (64-31)
Tip-off: Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET
Line: Boston -1, Total: 202.5
How will LeBron James and the Cavaliers respond after a crushing Game 1 loss?After the Pacers took the Cavs to seven games in the first round, the runway appeared to be cleared: Cleveland's sweep of a 59-win Toronto team showcased LeBron James at the peak of his powers, and he looked set to rumble his way to his eighth straight NBA Finals. The only thing standing in his way? A young Celtics team missing its two best players to injury. Well, not so fast, LeBron—turns out this Boston team will be a formidable opponents indeed, as the Celtics' defense blitzed the Cavs for 48 minutes to win in a 108-83 laugher in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the TD Garden on Sunday afternoon. The Cavs' offense looked much more like the team that bumbled through a listless regular season than the one that destroyed mismatch after mismatch against the Raptors, and it will be up to more than just James to step up in Game 2, which takes place on Tuesday night. LeBron said after the game on Sunday that he had been feeling things out in Game 1 and felt like he now had a good sense of what the Celtics were doing. If history has told us anything, it's that The King will return to the court with a vengeance on Tuesday. Over the last five seasons, road teams that are are playing their sixth (or fewer) game in 14 days and coming off a road loss of 10 or more (CLE) are 34-15 against spreads set between +3 and -3. Since 1996, games involving a road team playing its third (or fewer) game in 10 days (CLE) are 32-11 Over totals set between 200 and 209.5 when said team is attempting to revenge a road loss against its opponent. Boston backup PG Shane Larkin remains out indefinitely with an injured shoulder.
James essentially laid an egg on Sunday, scoring only 15 points (5-16 FG; 0-5 3PT) and grabbing seven rebounds, and his nine assists were pretty much offset by his seven turnovers. He was a startling -32 on the floor, 15 points worse than the next-worst Cavalier. Perhaps more than any other team in the league, Boston offers an array of long, strong and quick defenders that can switch onto him interchangeably. While no single one of them can shut him down alone, the fact that they can take turns keeps them fresh. But LeBron has a knack for following up his worst performances with his best ones. After 24 points in a Game 1 loss against Indiana (7-17 FG), he went off for 46 points (17-24 FG) in a Game 2 victory. After 22 points (7-16 FG) in a Game 6 loss in the same series, he exploded for 45 points (16-25 FG) in the clinching Game 7. Some of the highest highs and lowest lows of LeBron's playoff career have come on the Boston parquet, and he seems destined for another high on Tuesday, or at least at some point in this series. The question is, will that be enough? PF Kevin Love had a great series against Toronto, and he had 17 and 8 in Game 1 against Boston, but he'll need to be better on both ends of the floor going forward. SG Kyle Korver was crucial against the Raptors, but he had five in Game 1 and looked like a liability on defense. He, SG J.R. Smith and PG George Hill combined for 14 points on 6-of-19 shooting in the starting lineup. PG Jordan Clarkson and SG Rodney Hood combined for 21 points off the bench, but they were only 9-of-23 from the floor combined. That's too many shots in an Eastern Conference Finals game for two mediocre guards. C Tristan Thompson had eight points in 11 rebounds in 21 minutes. He can outbruise the Celtics on the interior, but is toast if they decide to run while he's in the game.
The Celtics are the anti-Cavs, in that they are an equitable offense that never relies on one single player. PF Marcus Morris boasted ahead of Game 1 that he was the NBA's second-best LeBron stopper, and he back it up by being one of many Celtics that slowed down LBJ. He also was awesome on offense with 21 points (7-12 FG; 3-4 3PT) and pulled down 10 rebounds, finishing +25 on the floor. The only better number was rookie phenom SF Jayson Tatum's +27. Boston's leading playoff scorer at 18.6 PPG, Tatum was fourth on the team in scoring on Sunday with 16 points, but his buckets—including an early-fourth-quarter fastbreak finger roll that pushed the lead to 21—came at key moments. His fellow youngster, SG Jaylen Brown, was also fantastic, scoring a game-high 23 points (9-16 FG) and rebounding eight shots in only 28 minutes. The duo was also a terror on defense, relentlessly harassing their matchups and darting into passing lanes. C Al Horford was even more efficient than Brown, scoring 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in 27 minutes. Suddenly and deservedly, he's getting recognition as one of the league's best and most versatile big men. PG Terry Rozier had eight points, eight assists and six rebounds, and had some questioning whether his defensive prowess makes him more useful in these Celtics lineups than Kyrie Irving would be. That notion is ridiculous, but a compliment to Rozier nonetheless. PG Marcus Smart brought his usual chaos in 25 minutes off the bench, and hit a key three immediately prior to Tatum's aforementioned fastbreak layup. C Aron Baynes had eight rebounds in 25 minutes and played up to Thompson's level. Baynes was a +17 on the floor while Thompson was -12.