by Mark Deeks
(1) Boston Celtics @ (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers lead 2-1)
Down 21 in the third quarter and without their star guard Isaiah Thomas, the Boston Celtics somehow rallied to win game three of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Down 21 in the game, down 2-0 in the series, on the road, against the defending champions, who were undefeated in the playoffs to date, on the back of a 46 point home loss, and without their best player, the Celtics somehow turned it around and won the game on an Avery Bradley three pointer. It goes down as one of the most unlikely comebacks of all time.
Injuries wise, Thomas will miss the remainder of the playoffs, no matter how long they go on for. Amir Johnson, who has long been nursing a troublesome ankle, also now has a bad right shoulder and will be hobbled. Walter Tavares, who wasn’t going to play anyway, is out for the Cavaliers.
Celtics New Look Guard Combo
The oft-featured-in-this-list Marcus Smart was the main catalyst for the comeback. In addition to doing the usual Smart-y things of applying ball pressure, attacking the ball wherever it was loose and trying to do some work off the ball, Smart also took over as the main point guard, and thus had a far greater share of the half-court offense and scoring responsibility than ever before. And with it, he was remarkably successful. Smart made seven of his ten three-point attempts – this from a 28% three point shooter during the regular season, and a 29% outside shooter in his career – including big shots, step-backs and run stoppers.
It was a very out-of-character performance for Smart; the confidence was not out of the ordinary (he has always been that), nor the heart (he has always had that), but the sheer ability to make that many shots was unprecedented, especially ones so difficult. Regardless of whether that anomaly continues, what will definitely continue is that Smart will need to shoulder a far bigger offensive responsibility again. At $14.3 million, Smart is not cheap, but he is likely a bargain.
Jerebko’s Minutes Should Rise
The more unlikely hero of the game three comeback was Jonas Jerebko. After playing 78 of the 82 regular season games – albeit from a deep bench role – Jerebko has been in large part squeezed out of the playoffs as the rotation has shrunk, recording six DNP-CDs, including four in a row since game five of the second round series against the Washington Wizards. Jerebko did play 16 minutes in the 46 point blowout game two loss, recording 4 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists, but those were far from rotation minutes.
In game three, however, Brad Stevens turned to Jerebko in the need to turn to someone, and Jerebko responded. Apart from a couple of blown defensive rotations – which mercifully don’t show up in fantasy stat lines – Jerebko played 13 fairly perfect minutes, scoring 10 points on 4 shots (it would have been 11 if he did not keep his tippy toes on the three-point line), 5 rebounds, an assist and a block. Jerebko was +22 in those 13 minutes, and it was not a coincidence. In light of the Celtics’ struggles to get anything from the forward spots, and with Johnson’s continued injuries, Jerebko surely deserves another shot in the rotation tonight. And at only $6.7 million, one of the cheapest players available, he represents a very good value pick.
Kelly Olynyk’s striking inconsistency has struck again. A 0 point, 0 rebound performance in game two was followed by a 15 point, 3 rebound, 2 assist performance in game three. You can never have any idea what you are getting from Olynyk. It might be nothing. However, he represents one of only three pickable options at the centre spot in this series. And at $11.5 million, his value relative to Tristan Thompson ($18.9 million) and Al Horford ($19.5 million) means that picking Olynyk allows you to spend a lot more money in the backcourt, where the real production will come from, without totally forgoing the centre spot.
Once again, there are few “steals” on the Cavaliers team. Their nine man rotation is very well established, and of the four bench players, only Kyle Korver and Channing Frye are plausible candidates for significant nights off the bench statistically. Iman Shumpert will play and perform, but mostly defensively in immeasurable ways, while Deron Williams has been a complete non-factor.
Tristan Thompson Continues To Dominate
Nevertheless, amongst the starters, Tristan Thompson continues to feast on the opposing pairing of Olynyk and Horford. Thompson has long been one of the game’s best offensive rebounders, yet against one of the league’s worst rebounding teams (with no production from its power forward spot save for the aforementioned Jerebko redux, and a centre pairing that does not want to mix it up on the defensive glass any longer), he has feasted. Sandwiching the 7 point, 2 rebound performance of game two – when there were not many missed shots to grab – have been performances of 20 points, 9 rebounds and 6 offensive rebounds in game one, and 18 points, 13 rebounds and 7 offensive rebounds in game three. Thompson has even hit his foul shots, going 19 of 27 on the series thus far, and shooting 13-16 from the field.
Expect A Backlash From LeBron
Ultimately, the reason Cleveland lost game two was because LeBron James had one of the worst performances of his career. LeBron had 11 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 turnovers on 4-13 shooting, went scoreless in the fourth quarter despite playing every minute of it, was a non-factor defensively, and did not score throughout the 21 point comeback. Had he managed just two of his unstoppable scoring drives to the basket a la games one and two, the Cavaliers would have gotten away with it.
It was embarrassing, and a tough watch – one of the greatest of all time, in the midst of one of his best ever stretches, just put up one of his worst ever games. Cleveland needs LeBron; with him on form, they coast over almost everyone, yet without him, they are vulnerable to all.
So with that in mind, expect him to scorch some Earth in game four.