CLEVELAND - The Boston Celtics solved their first-quarter problem in Cleveland, and it didn't matter.
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics trailed 32-17 after the first quarter. Game 4: 34-18. And in neither game did they cut the deficit to less than seven points thereafter. So, heading into Game 6, with an extra level of desperation in the Cleveland Cavaliers facing elimination, there was an obvious "survive the first quarter" thought from pundits as priority No. 1 for the Celtics.
And they did it. The Celtics scored 11 points on the last five possessions of the period to close it with a 25-20 lead.
They survived the first quarter, but they did not survive the second. And after a 109-99 Cavs victory on Friday, the series is heading back to Boston for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday (8:30 ET, TSN).
A 25-point quarter isn't huge, but in what was a very slow-paced game (89 possessions for each team), it was efficient. The Celtics went to Al Horford in the post eight times in the opening 12 minutes and the Cavs mostly sent an extra defender at Horford, which seemed to play into the Celtics' hands. Horford surveyed the floor, his teammates moved without the ball, and the results were generally good.
The first Horford post-up was on the Celtics' second possession. LeBron James joined Tristan Thompson for the double-team and the ball swung to Terry Rozier, who got into the paint and found Jaylen Brown for a corner three. A few minutes later, there was no double-team, but Horford found Brown cutting to the basket for an and-one.
Midway through the first, a double-team on Horford resulted in a short jumper for Marcus Morris. Later, Horford found Marcus Smart on a cut, and Smart made a brilliant pass out for another corner three from Brown. On the next possession, Brown snuck behind Kyle Korver on the baseline for a layup.
The Celtics didn't score on all those Horford post-ups, but the eight in the first quarter produced 12 points on good shots. Horford didn't score a single point in the first, but having the offence run through him generated a strong quarter on the road against a desperate opponent.
"I thought our spacing was excellent," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the early execution. "The way we moved it out of the double."
The Celtics had a lead after the first quarter and Kevin Love was done for the night after a collision with Jayson Tatum. The door was open for the Celtics to put their postseason road woes behind them and close the series out.
Horford was off the floor to start the second quarter, and the Celtics took their foot off the gas. They scored five points on their first three possessions of the period, but the shots weren't good and the ball didn't get into the paint until possession No. 7. Smart took an ill-advised 3-pointer and then looked confused when Morris did the same on the very next possession.
"We missed some opportunities," Stevens said about the second quarter. "But I thought we also just got lax a little bit offensively. When we get lax offensively, we open up transition opportunities for them, and that's a problem."
The Celtics couldn't recapture their first-quarter rhythm, they didn't get Horford in the post once in the second quarter, and a 20-4 Cleveland run was ultimately the difference in the game.
"We stopped getting the ball inside," Rozier said. "The second quarter definitely killed us today."
James had himself one of those nights, shooting 10-for-17 from
outside the paint (where Boston wants him shooting from) on his way
to 46 points. He finished the Celtics off with two ridiculous,
step-back threes from the left wing.
"Hats off," Stevens said of the daggers. "The first one, that was ridiculous."
The Cavs scored 89 points on just 67 possessions (1.33 points per possession) after the first quarter and the Celtics couldn't keep up. They didn't try to get Horford in the post nearly as much in the second half as they did in the first quarter.
"We weren't looking for them as much as we were earlier," Horford said of the post-up opportunities.
A few post-ups did result in free throws, but the Celtics left some points at the line, shooting 11-for-20.
"The question about did we go to him enough, probably a good question," Stevens said. "And one that when we review it, we'll look at it and figure out if we need to do more."
If you asked the Celtics at the beginning of the postseason if they'd like to have one game on the floor for a trip to The Finals, they'd surely have accepted it.
"It's an absolute blast to prepare for as a coach," Stevens said of Game 7, "and to play in as a player."
But the Celtics may have let one get away on Friday, and though they're 10-0 at home in these playoffs, anything can happen in a Game 7, especially with the best player in the world on the other side. James has won the last five Game 7s that he's played in and scored 45 points in Game 7 against Indiana in the first round. Maybe he doesn't shoot so well from the outside on Sunday, but maybe he does.
Maybe the Celtics shouldn't even be here, given that they're missing two of their three best players. But they've made it this far, and they'd best keep their foot on the gas on Sunday.
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