The Cleveland Cavaliers remaining maddening and wildly inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.
After seemingly getting their act together at home during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers returned to looking hapless in the 96-83 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5.
Here are player grades for Cleveland.
LeBron James – B
For anyone else, this would have been a great game. But LeBron isn’t just anyone and by his standard, Game 5 was okay. On a night when his team-mates flat out didn’t show up to offer much help, James needed to go supernova, but he couldn’t pull that type of effort out. He looked gassed at times and didn’t exhibit the same hustle in transition and defence that he did in Game 3 and 4 at home. He was also sloppy with the ball again, losing six turnovers. Maybe he was saving something in the tank for when he and the Cavaliers really need it and are facing elimination.
Larry Nance Jr – B
It’s not a promising sign when you’re second-best player in a game is someone who was on the floor for just 17 minutes. Credit to Nance though, he brought energy on the boards and defensively, coming up with six rebounds and four blocks – much of which came after he got into a scuffle with Marcus Morris. Simply put, Nance looked like he wanted to (figuratively) fight in this game, whereas most of his teammates didn’t seem as interested.
Kevin Love – C+
After making his first two 3-pointers at the start, Love wasn’t much of an offensive factor for the rest of the game. LeBron is in dire need of someone to step up and be a competent sidekick to help shoulder the offensive burden, so 14 points is not going to get it done by Love.
Kyle Korver – C+
Through no fault of his own, Korver didn’t see the floor much in Game 5 – something coach Tyronn Lue weirdly put down to Boston not playing Semi Ojeleye, who was supposed to be Korver’s match-up. In the 19 minutes he did play, the sharpshooter did his usual thing offensively, although he left a few clean looks on the table. Defensively, he continued to hold his own, especially against Jaylen Brown.
Jeff Green – C
For once, Green wasn’t a huge a minus. In fact, he provided a little bit of offence, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 from the field. Cleveland have no choice but to play him because he’s one of their only serviceable wings, but Green can also do better.
Tristan Thompson – C-
He was mostly a non-factor in his 26 minutes as he failed to impact the game like he did back in Cleveland. Part of that may have been due to Aron Baynes being in starting lineup to counteract Thompson’s presence on the glass, but the Cleveland forward didn’t even limit Al Horford on the other end as well as he had been.
Jordan Clarkson – C-
Clarkson started off well by hitting a couple 3s, but couldn’t buy a bucket after that, especially in the fourth quarter when he had a couple looks that would have closed the gap.
George Hill – D+
The Cavaliers’ backcourt was nothing short of horrendous in Game 5, with both Hill and J.R. Smith providing very little. Hill at least got to the free throw line for his seven points, but didn’t attack in the same way he did in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won’t win this series unless Hill puts pressure on Boston’s defence.
J.R. Smith – D
It’s hard to be as bad as Smith was in Game 5. In 26 minutes, he had two points, one assist, one turnover and no rebounds, steals or blocks. He clanked all four his 3s and was generally a zero on offence. And as much as he tried on defence, he was burned constantly by Jayson Tatum.
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Boston didn’t shoot all that well (36.5 per cent) and had stretches of stagnant offence, but they played like the more desperate team and came out with energy on their home floor.
Here are player grades for the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum – A
Offensively, we’ve seen better from Tatum. But as far as all-around performances for his young career, this one is right at the top. He had 24 points on 7-of-15 from the field, while grabbing seven rebounds, dishing four assists, nabbing four steals and swatting two shots. He came up with timely baskets and his aggression netted him eight free throws, but he was perhaps more impressive on the defensive end, where he caused chaos as a help defender and jumped passing lanes. He was maybe the best player on the floor despite sharing the stage with LeBron James.
Al Horford – B+
Another solid outing by Horford, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and finished with a game-high plus-minus of plus-22. He only took nine shots, but he was aggressive from the early stages as the Celtics played through him in the post. Horford could have finished with better numbers if he converted a couple of easy looks, but it was still his best performance since Game 2.
Aron Baynes – B+
Brad Stevens’ lineup change was to insert his hulking centre into the starting five and the move paid dividends. With Baynes on the court, Boston had more size for rim protection and rebounding, which helped them hold the Cavaliers to 19 first-quarter points and jump out to an early lead. And even though LeBron James got the better of him on a few one-on-one situations, they were mostly tough, contested shots that the Celtics will live it.
Marcus Smart – B
Smart didn’t have any real signature moments in the win, but his shooting was a welcomed sight as he hit 5-of-9 overall and 3-of-6 from deep. He also had four assists as his ball-handling in the pick-and-roll led to some easy baskets.
Marcus Morris – B
He was just as effective coming off the bench for the first time in the series, finishing with 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting (3-of-6 on 3s) and six rebounds. Defensively, he checked James on 46 possessions and held his own, allowing 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Four of those misses were from long range as he did well to offer resistance.
Jaylen Brown – C
Brown’s ability to get to the free throw line is what kept him from having a rough night, as he shot just 4-of-15 overall and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. His aggressiveness can be a double-edged sword at times, as it was in Game 5 when many of his downhill drives ended up going into a crowd of defenders. And he still wasn’t able to take advantage of his match-up with Kyle Korver often.
Terry Rozier – D+
After hitting his first shot of the game – a 3-pointer – Rozier missed 12 in a row to go ice cold. He did make two baskets in the fourth quarter to help keep Cleveland at bay, but the Celtics were fortunate to survive a bad game by him, and that too at home.
Weaknesses are nearly impossible to hide in the playoffs. Whether it’s the limitations of a player or the soft spots of a team, deficiencies are magnified over the course of a seven-game series.
Which is why as simplistic as it sounds, one of the main reasons the Eastern Conference Finals have a different complexion now than they did before reaching Cleveland is a single mismatch the Cavaliers have exploited over and over again.
The Boston Celtics defence has been great all season and in the playoffs, they’ve ratcheted up the pressure significantly at times. But Cleveland have found one method of attack that has given the Celtics problems.
Seemingly whenever Terry Rozier has been on the floor with LeBron James, the Cavaliers have run a pick-and-roll to get Boston’s guard matched up with James. Hardly anyone can match James’ strength and skill in the post, so it’s no surprise the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Rozier has struggled to hold up in those situations.
James has either calmly backed Rozier down and gotten easy baskets, or waited for Boston’s help defenders to lean his way just enough to where he can find teammates for open 3s.
I like LeBron using a live dribble to get the Rozier switch much better than CLE using him as the screener, where Boston gets a chance to execute that scram because someone has to lob the ball in to him #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/tv2YHzYGgL pic.twitter.com/vYcRLQX7LF— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 22, 2018
Rozier only registered as the direct defender on James for six possessions in Game 4, but on those James was a perfect 3-of-3 and drew a shooting foul for seven points. In Game 3, James hit his only shot on Rozier and drew two free throws in five possessions.
Those stats don’t jump off the page and scream concern for Boston, but watching the games you can tell how much those situations scramble the Celtics defence.
The odd thing is, this isn’t something that started happening when the series shifted to Cleveland. The Cavaliers were going after Rozier in the first two games in Boston, it’s just that the Celtics managed to counteract them with the ‘scram switch’, which basically involves a weakside defender pulling the overmatched defender off the ball and taking the assignment, usually before the ball arrives.
Boston have added their own spin on it by waiting until the entry pass is in the air before committing to the switch, which allows a bigger body like Al Horford to corral James in the post.
Fantastic effort by Terry Rozier to get back into this play. Celts executed that scram switch, he had to sprint all the way out to Love in the opposite corner #TwitterNBAShow https://t.co/tv2YHzYGgL pic.twitter.com/6EsiBXYtk6— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 22, 2018
That strategy worked well in the first two contests, but for whatever reason, the Celtics didn’t use it as frequently, or execute it as soundly, in Cleveland. That’s how Rozier was left on an island so often against James or Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson in Game 3 and 4, resulting in good looks for the Cavaliers offence.
One part of the solution for Boston is to simply communicate and rotate quicker. After getting burned repeatedly by mismatches on Rozier in the first half of Game 4, the Celtics adjusted at the intermission and looked more like the defence from the first two games in the third and fourth quarters – and it’s not a coincidence Cleveland scored 43 points in the second half.
In fact, the first two instances of the second half when Rozier was caught on a mismatch, Boston’s scram switch forced the Cavaliers into turnovers each time.
The Celtics are more than capable of getting out of those situations, but they can also help themselves by staying out of them in the first place.
Too many times in Cleveland, Boston was content to switch everything just for the sake of switching. Even when George Hill or J.R. Smith would run a pick-and-roll with James well beyond the arc, the Celtics defence would relent and give it to what the Cavaliers wanted by switching, instead of daring Hill or Smith to beat them off the dribble by going under the screen.
But Boston has a tougher set. Here there’s no real reason to switch, Hill’s not enough of a threat, and they’re not really engaging. You could have not switched this, and kept Rozier off of Love. That threat is why the help comes, that opens the corner. pic.twitter.com/hce7nUEAUp— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 22, 2018
You can chalk that up to a few things: poor coaching – yes, even for the great Brad Stevens – youth, and lack of communication and trust.
Boston have been a different team on the road than at home in the playoffs for a reason. They’re young and susceptible to mental lapses and loss of composure.
If they can refocus on the defensive blueprint that allowed them to take a 2-0 lead in the series, they can win this game within the game – and as a result, this series.