BOSTON — All season, the Celtics made a habit of slowing themselves down when they felt a game spinning out of control.
Now, with arguably the season on the line Wednesday night in the pivotal Game 5 at home, they have to do so one more time.
The series with the Cavaliers is tied, 2-2. LeBron James and his gang have reclaimed momentum in the series with two convincing home wins and can seize home court with a win on the road against the Celtics at TD Garden.
On Monday night, there were several instances where the Celtics made runs at the Cavs, only to make a key mistake or miss a golden opportunity and have Cleveland respond. Whether it was Marcus Smart having the game speed up on him late in the first half as the Celtics cut the Cleveland lead to nine or a failure to box out Larry Nance Jr. late in the third quarter, Boston opened the door and Cleveland raced through it.
“We have to be better,” Stevens told me when I asked him if his team might have been playing too fast. “You could say it until you’re blue in the face: ‘Play with poise, find your best shot, continue to move on to the next possession.’ But, there are times where everybody succumbs to getting rushed. And we certainly did our fair share of that [Monday] night.”
The Cavaliers responded to their opportunities in Game 4 and Boston did not.
Of course there were the missed chances early in Game 4, namely the three missed dunks that set the tone early on and allowed Cleveland to build the lead to 19. Coaches want their players to play with desperation but they don’t want it to affect their decision-making. The Celtics looked completely out of character in Game 3, forcing shots and not attacking the paint. They settled for jumpers. On Monday, they did a better job of attacking the paint but not passing the ball. In both cases, the desperation resulted in either hurried or compromised looks at the basket.
“Sometimes you get that way when you’re behind so much,” said Stevens. “You try to hit home runs and you try to do that kind of stuff. Obviously you’re playing against the best of the best on a great stage and I thought that we did get hurried a little bit.”
When the Celtics got some great looks in transition, they failed to capitalize.
“The missed dunks – those happen,” Stevens added. “The Jaylen [Brown missed dunk] specifically, he’s going to make that 9.9999 out of 10 times.”
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) May 22, 2018
Here are five things the Celtics can do in Game 5 to ensure they’re not facing elimination on Friday night in Cleveland:
FINISH: If the Celtics can get out on the break after Cleveland misses, they should be able to get the same looks they got in Game 4. This time, they have to finish.
Al cuts it to single digits 💪 https://t.co/XYzWzBdGBM
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 22, 2018
ATTACK THE BASKET: This is where Al Horford comes into play. Brad Stevens has repeated in the playoffs what he insisted all season: It’s up to others on the team to feed Horford to get him his good looks at the basket and give him a chance to stabilize the offense, something lacking throughout Game 3 and during critical stretches of Game 4.
GET BACK ON TRANSITION: Kevin Love-to-LeBron James outlet highlights like the one in the second quarter of Game 4 are going to happen. Love is one of the best in the game to ever do it after grabbing a rebound. But what the Celtics have to stop is allowing Cleveland, a team not known for its transition attack during the season, from getting easy, uncontested layups.
BOX OUT ON DEFENSIVE GLASS: Offensive rebounds were a killer in the second half, not the number of them, per se, but the timing. Larry Nance Jr. came on in the third quarter and added his impact to an already prominent advantage held with Love and Tristan Thompson.
“On some plays at the rim, (the Cavaliers) have done a great job of getting to us, contesting us, making it as tough as possible,” Stevens said. “And at that time, we either have to finish with authority, or we have to make a kick-out (pass).”
GET AN EARLY LEAD: Nothing would be better for the Celtics than building the kind of lead Cleveland fans enjoyed in the first quarters of Games 3 and 4. This has been – except for Cleveland’s 11-point first-half lead in Game 2 – a series for the front runner. Get ahead early and let the crowd get in the heads of the Cavs. Yes, the Celtics were able to overcome the aforementioned hole in Game 2 but the vibe is ENTIRELY different now.
Even LeBron James (whom we did not include in the 5 since he’s almost certainly going to get his win or lose) acknowledged as much in his post-game interview with Doris Burke after Game 4, understanding the huge challenge of heading back to Boston, where the Celtics are 9-0 so far this year in the playoffs.