In keeping with one of few discernible trends of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers protected its home court Monday night in a 111-102 Game 4 win over the Celtics. Though the games themselves haven’t been particularly close through four games, each bout has presented new wrinkles and counters to the strategies of previous games, and both Brad Stevens and Tyronn Lue’s game-to-game adjustments have been fascinating to track.
Boston came out with far more force and intensity than it did in Game 3, when, for the first time in these playoffs, the Celtics looked like the less hungry team. That in itself is an adjustment worth mentioning. Cleveland, meanwhile, maintained the energy and defensive pressure it displayed in Game 3, with some minor tweaks of its own to boot.
Here’s what stood out from the Cavaliers’ win:
The inexorability of LeBron James in the face of adversity
There may be no force in the NBA more devastating than LeBron James with an advantage, be it a size discrepancy, a step on his defender or any other dilemma into which he might put a defense. At its most fundamental level, Cleveland’s entire offense is rooted in James generating some sort of leverage against a defense and making the correct read. And this version of James — arguably the most complete to date — has so few holes in his game as to always have an advantage, regardless of scheme, personnel or supporting cast.
In Game 4, he got to the rim at will, via either a size mismatch in the post or a quickness advantage on the perimeter. Early on, the Cavaliers attacked Terry Rozier and Boston’s switching defense in the pick-and-roll, James posted up on the switch and the outcome of the possession was all but decided. When Boston closed off his route to the basket or attempted to normalize matchups, it came at the cost of a quick attack from the world’s best player. The active off-ball switching and double-teaming the Celtics had done early in the series was met in Game 4 with swift, decisive action that left Boston vulnerable on the weak side.
James may not be as central on defense as he his on offense, but he remains Cleveland’s tone-setter on that end of the floor. The Cavaliers’ defense wasn’t perfect; the same breakdowns and miscommunications that ailed them all season long were plainly evident. But the level of intensity and activity on that end of the floor increased tenfold in the Cavs’ two games at home. They made multiple efforts on the same possession. They bothered to at least make Boston uncomfortable by closing out, rotating on defense and getting back in transition.
Meanwhile, Cleveland scored 10 points in transition, and most all of them seemed to be fueled by the Celtics’ offense devolving into an array of forced shots and turnovers. That was all the help James, who finished with 44 points on 17-of-28 shooting, needed to carry his team the rest of the way.
Kyle Korver’s activity
Games 1 and 2 proved nothing if not that it will take more than just a monster effort from James for the Cavaliers to win. Role players historically tend to play better at home, and simply getting more production from the likes of George Hill and J.R. Smith has helped turn the series back to a stalemate. Most consistent among Cleveland’s supporting cast has been Kyle Korver, who upon being inserted into Monday night’s contest, immediately injected his team with activity and verve.
Korver played 25 minutes, the most of any game this series, and the Cavs probably need him on the floor for at least that in every game from here on out.
Korver netted 14 points on just seven shots in Game 4, and didn’t miss a shot until the third quarter. The threat of his jump shot informs every other element of his offensive game and unlocks otherwise difficult coverages to navigate. Lose him for even a second curling around a screen, and you’re toast. Jump out to double him, and a screener will slip open for a layup. His screens put a defense into utter chaos, and his off-ball two-man game with Kevin Love is nearly unguardable.
Korver played with energy all season, even during midseason slumps, and at times, was literally the only Cavalier to do so. Though he remains a liability as an isolation defender, his off-ball vigor and attentiveness helps tie the Cavs together and is a welcome change from the indolence that often plagues them on that side of the ball. The Celtics have targeted Korver repeatedly in one-on-one situations this series, and for most of Game 4, he didn’t budge (and even recorded three blocks!).
Should such a matchup with the Warriors come to pass, Korver’s defensive shortcomings will become a larger issue. Against these depleted Celtics, who have fewer and less dangerous individual scoring threats, the offensive benefit typically outweighs that cost.
This is the kind of game that makes Boston miss its injured stars
During the game, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney noted that had Kyrie Irving been healthy for this series, it might have been him, not Rozier, taking the punishment of being continually switched onto James, heightening the intrigue of an already compelling series. Irving’s absence was just as prominent as the Celtics clawed back into the game in the fourth quarter, nearly mounting a comeback on the shoulders of Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford.
Boston has who it has, and hypothetical additions of injured stars have no actual bearing on these games. The Celtics won’t use their depleted roster as an excuse or entertain the idea of what could have been had it remained intact. At least not right now.
But for those of us observing and speculating on this series, the potential of a fully-constructed roster is impossible not to think about. The luxury of a proven shot-maker like Hayward or an unflappable isolation artist like Irving might have provided more structure and assurance on offense while alleviating the load on the rest of Boston’s starters and sparing them some energy for the other end of the floor. Perhaps the subtleties of Horford’s game are even more accentuated with more polished talent around him. How devastating could Brown and Tatum be going against an opponent’s weakest perimeter defenders rather than their best?
These questions won’t have answers for another few months. Relying on a group with so little experience in these sorts of situations to outgun one of the most accomplished playoff performers of all time is a tough spot for a team to find itself in. The Celtics outscored Cleveland in each of the final three quarters of Game 4, thoroughly out-executed them in Games 1 and 2 and boast superior depth to the Cavs. Ultimately, Boston simply didn’t have enough firepower, and once again LeBron James had the upper hand.