Sure, the Celtics could get off to another fast start and win Game 2 going away. But it’s hard to imagine Cleveland would just fold two games in a row. The Celtics played plenty of close games in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Philadelphia and Milwaukee, finding ways to win in the latter stages of the game. But trying to do that against a veteran team looking for its fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals is another matter.
What has made the Celtics so effective down the stretch in close games is the fact that they don’t rely on just one person. Several players have stepped up to allow the team to pull out nail-biters in the playoffs, particularly in the last three wins against the 76ers.
Terry Rozier hit a pair of 3-pointers and set up a few more open looks in the last six minutes of Game 2 as the Celtics rallied from 5 points down late to get the win. Jayson Tatum and Horford helped close out the Game 3 overtime win at Philadelphia. Marcus Smart made several key plays both offensively and defensively down the stretch in the series-clinching Game 5.
So the Celtics have demonstrated the ability to be clutch in the waning moments of postseason games. They may need to draw on that if they are to head to Cleveland with a 2-0 lead.
The Cleveland center has posed problems for the Celtics in the past, but the Cavaliers have gone with a different approach in the playoffs, hoping that Korver and Smith can do damage from the outside. It worked in Cleveland’s sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the conference semifinals, but after Sunday’s blowout, Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said he is considering putting Thompson in the starting lineup.
“It’s definitely something we have to weigh,” Lue said. “We weighed it before the series started, but we’d won seven out of eight and we weren’t going to adjust until someone beat us and we didn’t play well with that lineup and that got us to this point.”
The move would appear to bolster the Cleveland defense. With Love playing center in Game 1, the Celtics took the ball to the basket at will. Love did not have an answer for Al Horford, who finished with 20 points, shooting 8 for 10. Whereas last year the Celtics would try to counter with Amir Johnson, this year it would seem Aron Baynes would get the call if they struggled to defend Thompson, although Brad Stevens may have another solution to surprise us all.
No question, the defense of Marcus Morris and his teammates against LeBron James was impressive, with James finishing Game 1 with just 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting. But James appeared to be passive early on, content to pass the ball in an attempt to get teammates Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith involved.
He’s unlikely to make that mistake again. Expect James to come out with some intensity. Historically, James has responded after his team dropped the first game of a series, and his teammates expect him to do so again.
“I expect him to have a big response,” said Kevin Love. “He’s always done it. Even before he came back to Cleveland and since I’ve been here he’s always responded big.
“He’s going to approach this game as one that he’s going to have to lead and bounce back.”
TV/radio: ESPN, WBZ-FM (98.5)
Referees: Mike Callahan, Derrick Stafford, Sean Wright (alternate: Sean Corbin)