The Cavaliers smashed the Celtics to pull the Eastern Conference Finals to 2-1. Here’s three things we learned during the beatdown.
1. Despite what you’ve heard, you can play a traditional center with LeBron James still.
The Cavaliers absolutely smashed the Celtics in Game 3, and despite calls to move back to lineups featuring Kevin Love at the five, Tyronn Lue stuck to his guns, and in fact doubled down on lineups with traditional centers.
Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson combined to play 44 of the game’s 48 minutes on Saturday night. The Cavaliers managed a 124.9 offensive rating with Thompson on the floor. In Nance’s 21 minutes, they put up a 118.4 offensive rating. LeBron James used both bigs’ ability as rim runners to bend the defense to his will.
It’s easy and correct to note that LeBron doesn’t get as much going at the rim as he does when he’s playing with a five-out lineup. But that understates his ability to affect the defense when the Cavaliers are actually running stuff offensively.
It’s not that hard to score schematically when you pair LeBron James with four shooters. You can run some high pick and roll, some pindown action on the weak side and call it a day. A pick and roll with a rim runner requires a little more craft and guile, but such guile was always going to be needed against a defense as good as Boston’s. They didn’t want to leave three-point shooters to tag the roll man, and LeBron was able to pick them apart.
Defensively, keeping a traditional center on Al Horford in Thompson especially has been one of the only ways to neutralize the Celtics offense in this series. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are excellent bucket getters, but never forget that Horford is the hub.
The Cavs should stay big the rest of the way, and we should stop pretending that having three deadeye shooters on the floor isn’t enough.
2. The Celtics are so bad on the road
The Cavaliers played better, but lest ye forget-- the Celtics are as bad on the road as they are good at home. It’s not uncommon for young teams to have that sort of disparity, but the Celtics take it up another notch.
The loss put them at 1-5 on the road for the playoffs with the 14th worst net rating in road games at -12.9. Everyone ranked 10 or below except for the Celtics was knocked out in the first round. This is good news for Cavaliers fans, as their chances of evening the series up look better when contextualized with this.
But eventually, they’re going to have to win in Boston, and that won’t be an easy task.
3. George Hill doesn’t even have to be great - we just have to notice him
George Hill was completely invisible in the first two games of the series. Sometimes people overuse that expression when a player’s just playing poorly.
In this instance, it’s fairly spot on. Hill scored eight total points in the first two games and dished a solitary assist. It was clearly part of the Cavaliers game plan to get him firing in Game 3 as he scored 11 first quarter points.
What’s funny about Hill (and his backcourt partner J.R. Smith), is that neither had particularly efficient games despite rightfully being praised for playing better (a low bar indeed). Hill shot 4-11 from the field and 3-9 from distance. The fact of the matter is that the Cavaliers need players like Hill to attack and put their stamp on the game.
The Cavaliers do not have enough weapons for Hill to be a passive contributor, only taking wide open shots. The more he looks to pull, the better the Cavs chances of mustering a solid offense are.