BOSTON — When Jaylen Brown spoke after closing out Philadelphia in Game 5 at TD Garden, he said the Celtics treated it like a Game 7. They wanted no part of giving new life to a Sixers team looking for a Game 6 back in Philly.
The Celtics better have that same mentality when they take the court in a much more hostile environment Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. This Game 6 should be the opportunity to catch the Cavs when they’re down and just about checked out physically and psychologically.
They were hammered in Game 5 and LeBron James looked like a superstar who was finally tired of carrying the load for his teammates, both literally and figuratively. J.R. Smith couldn’t get a grip on Jayson Tatum and Tyronn Lue actually thought it was a good idea to sit Kyle Korver for the entirety of the first quarter because Brad Stevens didn’t sub in Semi Ojeleye.
“I look forward to seeing us respond on Friday night,” LeBron James said hopefully. “I know how well we’ve played at home in this postseason. That’s the only thing I can worry about right now. I’m not worried about a Game 7. You have to worry about Game 6. You can’t put yourself in that moment until you take care of the present.”
Make no mistake, this Cavs team is teetering. Friday night, the Celtics need to push them over the cliff early on and take the rest of the Memorial Day weekend to rest up for the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals since losing Game 7 in Los Angeles in 2010.
Two years earlier, after a pair of grueling seven-game series, including one against a much younger LeBron and the Cavs, the Celtics went to Detroit in Game 6 of the Eastern Finals with a chance to close out on the road. That’s just what Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen did, beating the Pistons, 89-81, to advance to the Finals against the Lakers. They were able to get an extra three days of rest and opened the Finals at home. With the Finals beginning next Thursday in either Houston or Oakland, the Celtics would be well-advised to get home soon and rest.
Pierce, now working as an NBA analyst for ESPN, is already on record saying that if the Celtics allow LeBron to get to Game 7, the Cavs will win the game and the series and head to the Finals for a fourth straight year, with LeBron moving onto the final round for a remarkable eighth straight season.
The trick for Friday? Hit them early and often with the same type of force that Baynes provided in the paint and Tatum did from the perimeter. Baynes, if he starts again, can be counted on to throw his big body around with no problem. The bigger question is whether the 20-year-old Tatum can show the same big-game pedigree at The Q that he did in Game 5.
Wednesday was critical for one reason in particular, the Celtics showed they could win ugly. Terry Rozier (3-for-15) and Brown (4-for-15) were a combined 9-for-30 from the field yet they didn’t hang their heads or show a great deal of frustration.
“We’re going to have to do that (Friday) night as a collective group,” Stevens told me during a conference call Thursday before jetting off for Cleveland. “There’s going to be moments that don’t go our way, and the minute you hang your head or the minute, like I just said, you lose your poise and try to hit home runs, that’s when it
backfires on you. We just need more and more of that, but those guys — you know, they did a good job last night of just kind of staying the course and playing through a tough shooting night, and you know, as a team we had a tough shooting night. But our calling card all year has been the other end of the floor.”
Then there’s Al Horford, just one win away from the first NBA Finals trip of his 11-year career. He is taking a slightly different approach than Jaylen Brown.
“We just have to go out and play,” Horford said. “(We) can’t think about it as a Game 7. Just like (Wednesday), we were thinking this was a Game 5. We have a good challenge to go on the road. We haven’t won there this season. It’s going to be very difficult, but we have a great opportunity in front of us.
“Our approach as a group, we’re going in there, staying together, playing the right way. We want to be more consistent playing the right way on the road.”
Rozier finds Horford for the oop in transition! ? pic.twitter.com/mOTN9G6t1X
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 24, 2018
The alley oops are much easier at home before an incredibly energetic and electric TD Garden crowd. But the Celtics don’t need a lot of flash Friday. They need grit. They need to protect the paint and make sure that the Cavs have to work on every possession. Cleveland is going to be desperate early on and with desperation comes nerves. The Celtics will be able to capitalize on these nerves if they attack on offense and close out on Cleveland’s 3-point marksmen early in the game.
Boston’s 10-0 home record and 1-6 road mark are well documented in these playoffs. Horford isn’t afraid to let the young guns take over on the big stage Friday night in Cleveland. He’s seen enough from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier to know they won’t shrink in massive spotlight that will be on them in Cleveland.
“It’s a lot of fun, just because these guys, they want to play the right way,” Horford said. “They play hard. I feel like we hold each other accountable out there. I think that’s a big thing. And when those things happen, it becomes fun. It’s fun to me. And there’s no coincidence why we’re in this position right now. The guys have really bought into what Coach (Brad Stevens) wanted from them. We’ve been preparing the same way all season.
“We’re having some success that’s paying off because of the commitment that we’re doing as a team.”
What better sendoff to the NBA Finals than beating King James and the three-time defending Eastern champs on the same court where it appeared all but impossible on opening night.
That fairytale is just 48 minutes of “true grit” Celtics basketball from reality.