Here are five things to watch out for when the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers meet at 8:30 p.m. tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Challenge Gets Tougher
The Boston Celtics faced their biggest challenge of the season Sunday night when they took on, and beat, the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena despite being without top scorer Isaiah Thomas.
If they thought that obstacle was tough to tackle, Tuesday’s Game 4 in Cleveland should bring even more of a challenge.
The Cavs did not look like themselves during the second half of Game 3 as a new-look Celtics lineup torched them 55-31 during the final 18 minutes, en route to a 111-108 win.
After blowing a 21-point second-half lead, Cleveland left the building as embarrassed as the Celtics were after Game 2 when they were trampled by 44 points at home.
The embarrassment has likely ignited a fire inside the Cavs, so they could be coming out with a vengeance. On top of that, they now understand how Boston operates without Thomas, so they’ve likely created a new plan of attack heading into Game 4.
No challenge seems too difficult for the Celtics at this point, however, so expect them to be firing right back at Cleveland all night long.
Waking the Beast?
One Cavaliers player who will be particularly motivated to win this game is LeBron James. An extra-amped James is a scary thought.
The four-time league MVP was peppered with criticism following his underwhelming 11-point, six-rebound, six-assist, six-turnover Game 3 performance. It also marked the first time since the 2005-06 season that James played a full fourth quarter without scoring a single point.
It’s safe to say that he’s going to want to quickly put all of that in the past tonight by producing a monstrous performance.
James had previously logged just 10 career playoff efforts of scoring 15 points or fewer. Cleveland is now 1-10 during such performances, but James almost always responds. He averaged 24.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists following those previous nine losses when he scored 15 points or fewer.
“LeBron James understands how to play the game, and he understands what this team needs from him,” Avery Bradley said. “He’s most likely going to be a lot more aggressive. It’s our job to make sure that we defend him as best we can and just make every — take other guys out of the game.”
Jerebko Earning a Role
Jonas Jerebko registered six DNPs during Boston’s first 14 playoff games. Based on his Game 3 performance, don’t expect him to log any more.
Jerebko arguably made the biggest impact during Sunday’s game, as his energy and shooting perfection keyed Boston’s epic comeback.
When Jerebko entered the game midway through the third quarter, the Celtics were down by 21 points, but in a matter of five minutes they cut their deficit to five points. The sharpshooting Swede made all four of his shots, including two from long range, corralled five rebounds, and recorded a game-best plus-22 during just 12-plus minutes of play.
There’s a great chance Jerebko could see increased minutes tonight, especially if Amir Johnson, who sprained his shoulder during Game 3, is unable to play.
Narrowing the Free-Throw Gap
The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the free throw line 13 times during the first quarter of Game 3. That’s one more free throw attempt than Boston had all game.
Cleveland finished with 36 attempts from the charity stripe, which was three times the Celtics’ total of 12 attempts. Tristan Thompson alone took three more free throws than the Celtics as a team.
Yet, Boston still managed to win.
Don’t expect such fortune for the C’s if there is such a massive free-throw discrepancy again during Game 4.
Without Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 8.5 free-throw attempts per game during the regular season, the Celtics struggle to get to the line. Only three Boston players – Marcus Smart (six attempts), Kelly Olynyk (four attempts) and Avery Bradley (two attempts) – made it to the stripe Sunday night.
That’s not to say that Boston was just camping outside all night long, because it did manage to outscore Cleveland 36-24 in the paint. The C’s simply need to be able to draw more contact around the rim so that they can narrow the free-throw gap.
C’s Channeling Their Inner IT
Marcus Smart claimed he “channeled [his] inner IT” during Game 3 when he went off for a career-high 27 points, while shooting 7-of-10 from long range.
The Celtics will need more of the same Tuesday night as they look to continue to fill Thomas’ massive scoring void. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Smart again, but someone – multiple players, really – must step up and increase their roles on the offense end.
The Celtics had six players reach double-figures in the scoring department Sunday night and shot 18-of-40 from beyond the arc despite not having their top 3-point shooter on the floor.
Boston, as a whole, will need to continue to channel its inner IT tonight in order to make another dent on the offensive end.