The first quarter of Game 1 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics could not have gone any better for the underdog, seventh-seeded Celtics team playing on the road.
The fast paced opening quarter seemed to overwhelm the Cavs’ Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, who were making their first career playoff appearances. Although, no matter who is on the court, Irving is clearly the fastest player out there with anyone else being a distant second.
LeBron James came out of the gate playing extremely aggressive defense, picking up a quick foul while covering Evan Turner who was the Celtics primary ball handler in the opening quarter. From there it was like the Celtics were a shark with blood in the water.
Turner began driving into a cautious James, causing defensive collapses leading to the dish outs to Tyler Zeller who was hitting the 18-foot elbow shot early and often. With James glued to Evan Turner on the defense end, one couldn’t help but wonder if having he and Isaiah Thomas on the court at the same time would pose a problem for the Cavaliers as the series continued. With 6:45 remaining in the first, Thomas made his first career playoff appearance and that’s when Boston took control of the quarter.
Thomas entered the game with fellow bench juggernaut, Kelly Olynyk, and the high pick and rolls with James on the bench began to take their toll. Olynyk ripped off 10 points in his first four-minutes on the floor. Two three-pointers, a baseline drive with a giant dunk in between, Olynyk surely captured the attention of Boston fans, and Cleveland defenders, for that would be close to the end of his scoring on the night. The first quarter belonged to the Celtics bench with 16 points and 57 percent shooting from the field. Up four-points, Boston was in a position to put the Cavs on their heels early.
In the second quarter the Celtics subbed in stretch-forward, Jared Sullinger, who has just recently come off of injury. Sullinger didn’t end up being much of a story in the quarter or the game, but his presence on the floor and head coach Brad Stevens patience with the young forward was imminent.
Despite the spectacular defense from Cavs’ shooting guard, Iman Shumpert, the Celtics stayed hot and bumped up their lead to seven, early in the quarter. At that point the Cavaliers were 2-for-9 from the three-point line and shooting 40 percent overall. Then, in a flash, Irving and J.R. Smith hit back-to-back threes off LeBron assists, cutting the deficit to one.
After an immediate timeout by Brad Stevens, in which he stressed “purposeful offense”, James posted up two straight plays in a row, resulting in four-points and a Cavaliers lead.
James’ nature is to constantly look for his teammates and it showed in his passing late in the first-half with two amazing dishes to Love, one for three-pointer, and one under-the-hoop, both of which Love missed, possibly due to first-time playoff jitters. Love seemed somewhat overwhelmed in the half, finishing with only six points, shooting two-of-11 from the field.
With Love struggling early, Irving pushed to become the main offensive force for the team, scoring 20 points in the first half, hitting all three of his three-pointers, including the dagger at the end of the half. The Cavaliers ended the half up eight points despite Isaiah Thomas having 12 points and five assists off the bench. Certainly a more favorable finish to the half for the Cavs due in part to the ten-to-one lead in the offensive rebounding category.
Advantage, James gang.
Even down eight at the half, the Celtics had to be feeling good about the position they had put themselves in.
During a timeout we witnessed a smiling LeBron telling an assistant coach not to worry because the younger Cavs players would eventually calm themselves. That statement turned out to be a serious precursor to what would follow in the upcoming second-half.
The first half ended with a big three from Kyrie Irving and that’s exactly how the second half began. Irving showed the Celtics that he and his team had no intentions of backing down. At this point in the game, the team from Boston couldn’t buy a shot. Including consecutive plays without a basket or a stop on the defensive side of the ball. Cleveland then ripped off seven straight unanswered points, forcing Boston to take a timeout.
The Celtics have been strong out of timeouts this year and already showed their resilience after a Cleveland run was abruptly halted by a Brad Stevens timeout earlier in the game.
With the Celtics by down 13 and with hope dwindling rather quickly, they needed to do something to keep from being completely under water. Two straight Kervin Love offensive put-backs later and the Cavs were up 18, crushing the Celtics’ hope of a close game.
Irving continued to create and make shots while Love was on the bounce back from his lousy first half, nothing his twelfth board early in the third quarter. In true underdog fashion, the Celtics tear off a 14-to-0 run, cutting the Cavs lead to six with 1:45 remaining in the third.
Showing signs of life and a sure momentum swing, the green team was back in it, until Shumpert sipes two straight steals, finding Irving and in under a minute’s time padding the lead right back to a dozen. The Cavaliers win another quarter from the Celtics by capping the third off with a nine to zero run.
With the Celtics down 15 in the first of a seven-game series we all expected the Celtics to put the reserves in and start the game planning for Game 2.
Not the case.
The team and head coach have shown a type of intensity all year and that did not falter in this game despite the insurmountable lead. Stevens was arguing the same calls with refs as if his team was leading, even if they were down by 14.
Irving clearly cemented his right as “player of the game” with an and-one jump shot at the elbow, putting the Celts down for good.
A lack of consistent offense was the killer for the Celtics to go along with an ample amount of turnovers. The biggest deficiency in the Celtics’ starting five was Turner’s inability to pull the trigger on very makeable jump shots. Where the Cavs found amazing consistency in the hot-hand of Kyrie Irving and another double-double from the machine named Kevin Love.
LeBron is always going to amass his stats, regardless of how he is covered and that held true in this game.
For The Celtics to avoid a sweep in this series they must choke off Lebron’s supporting cast while allowing Isaiah Thomas to score 22 and dish ten dimes like he did tonight.
For the Cavaliers, I’m not sure there is a team in the NBA that could beat them if they play the way they did tonight for the remainder of the playoffs