Celtics Shut Down Underdog Narrative, Prove Matchup Nightmares for LeBron, Cavs

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 13, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, right, fights for position against Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris (13) during the third quarter of Game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference Finals, Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Throughout the 2017-18 NBA season, the Boston Celtics have functioned as a better team than the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's an objective fact.

Though LeBron James is easily the premier individual in the Eastern Conference Finals while C's head coach Brad Stevens has been forced to shuffle his lineup over and over to account for myriad injuries to rotation members (Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, etc.), the East's No. 2 seed has consistently proved itself the superior outfit. Its 3.7 net rating during the regular season lagged behind only the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Toronto RaptorsPhiladelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz, while the Cavs (1.0) fell all the way down to No. 13 from No. 8 last season. 

Game 1 of this penultimate round told a similar story, with Boston using a massive 21-2 run in the first quarter to earn a gaping advantage it would never relinquish en route to a 108-83 victory Sunday. At no point in the opening clash did the Cavaliers, even with James on the floor, seem like the juggernaut they'd apparently become against the Toronto Raptors one series earlier.

Except Cleveland was ostensibly the favorite in this contest.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Boston Celtics during Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER:
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Celtics only required five games to dispatch the talent-laden Philadelphia 76ers. They hadn't dropped a single game on their parquet floor against either the Sixers or the Milwaukee Bucks, their athletic but undisciplined first-round foes. And yet, despite playing at home in front of a raucous crowd that booed James every time he touched the rock in the first quarter, the Celtics were a one-point underdog at the opening tip, per OddsShark. Even FiveThirtyEight's CARM-Elo model gave the Northeast Ohio representatives a 60 percent chance of advancing to the Finals. 

To be fair, the rationale isn't that hard to grasp. 

Though Cleveland's sweep of Toronto was closer than 4-0 might initially indicate (see: overtime victory in Game 1 and the miraculous buzzer-beater in Game 3), it appeared to have turned that proverbial corner—the non-James members of the roster, in particular. While the Celtics are squeezing every iota of talent from non-household names such as Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Cavs roster still features the best player in the world. And he's a player who doesn't exactly lack confidence, even in the face of a road game in the Garden: 

Joe Vardon @joevardon

LeBron James: "Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a six seed or a three seed or a two seed, eight seed. If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging." -- Among my favorite LeBron quotes, ever

But the Celtics didn't take long to prove the Cavaliers' alleged status as favorites was a misnomer. They'd already exploded for 34 points in the first quarter before Tatum, their leading scorer in the playoffs, dropped a floater from the left baseline for his first points of the game, extending the lead to 36-18. 

The Cavs could only muster 35 points in the first half. 

Boston isn't always going to drill 61.9 percent of its field-goal attempts, as it did in the first quarter. It's not going to turn the ball over just three times in a half, as was the case Sunday. But Cleveland is making it tough to expect anything else. 

The defensive discipline still isn't there, and that's been the case throughout the campaign. Lest we forget, Cleveland finished the regular season ranked No. 29 in points allowed per 100 possessions, and it's only been the 10th-best defense in the playoffs. That lack of preventative power was on full display Sunday when the Cavs inexplicably left shooters open at the top of the key, failed to recognize backdoor cuts and helped from a man away against Boston's bevy of shooters, sometimes even neglecting to guard Brown in the corner so they could help against Al Horford

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13:  Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER:
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

These are basic defensive principles, elementary for even league-average outfits at this advanced stage of the season. But the concepts still elude far too many of the Cavaliers' rotation members, who are now going up against a team geared toward exploiting their countless mistakes. 

The Raptors were supposed to exploit Cleveland's defense, but poor shooting from DeMar DeRozan and a reversion to isolation proclivities prevented that. Boston won't fall into similar traps; it's a well-oiled machine with shooting coming from all five spots.

Oh, and it knows how to buckle down on defense, as well. 

If anything, Cleveland's defensive issues are a secondary concern when going against a crew uniquely built to become a matchup nightmare against a James-led offense. Generating offense, even for a group that has consistently torched foes to mitigate the ill effects of that Swiss cheese stopping unit, is problematic.

Chris Forsberg @ESPNForsberg

Marcus Morris on the chance to defend LeBron James in playoffs after getting a taste a couple years ago in Detroit: "I’m a little older, a little more experienced. Personally, I think I’m probably the best guy defending him in the league, outside of Kawhi."

The Celtics have a host of usable bodies they can throw at their primary adversary, ranging from alleged "LeBron stopper" Marcus Morris to the surprisingly quick Horford to the physical, young bodies of Brown and Semi Ojeleye. Unlike the Raptors, they don't have to double-team him on every possession, instead switching on screens and letting a wide range of frames attempt to slow James for singular possessions, harassing him into quick passes and ugly turnovers (seven on Sunday). 

Holding James to 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting was very much a team effort, but Morris did his part when granted the individual assignment: 

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

The Celtics take Game 1 against the Cavs 108-83. Cleveland's 25-point loss is the 2nd-largest Game 1 loss by a LeBron James team in his playoff career (27-point loss in the 2006 East Semis). James was guarded by Marcus Morris on 24 plays, finishing with 5 points on 2-6 shooting. https://t.co/NOuPpMS3wz

And perhaps even more importantly, this is nothing new for the Celtics forward:

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

Maybe Marcus is onto something... Since 2013-14, LeBron James has at least 50 FGA against 26 players in the halfcourt. He's shooting 33% when defended by Marcus Morris. The only player to force James into a lower percentage in that span is Draymond Green. h/t @SecondSpectrum https://t.co/1a3JAGlsbO

But even going into the Game 1 blowout, we knew all of this. Boston always looked—on paper, at least—like a mismatch for a Cavaliers team featuring an inconsistent supporting cast and a porous defense. That was just obfuscated by James' presence, since he makes it so difficult to bet against a run to the NBA Finals each and every season. 

Falling into the trap of overlooking these Celtics is significantly harder now. 

We've seen Horford continuing to serve as Boston's primary signal-caller against a James-led offense, and that didn't stop him from putting up 20 points and six assists of his own while shooting 8-of-10 from the field. The lights aren't too bright for the youngsters, either. Rozier's passing (eight assists, one turnover) and Brown's all-around game (23 points, eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block) were both on full display. 

Just look at this block and bucket on the other end:


Jaylen Brown denied Kevin Love, let him know about it ... then buried it on the other end. 👀 https://t.co/jFgNPTqmnj

Unless these up-and-comers get Monstared before any subsequent game in this series, they don't look scared of going against a living legend in James. Hell, they may just be young enough not to know any better. As Tatum said, via NESN, when asked how to slow down the four-time MVP in a postgame interview after closing out the Sixers, "This is my first year. I don't know."

Following Game 1, we have some ideas.

A Hall of Fame performance by an individual as talented and motivated as James can change this. We certainly don't want to rule out that possibility. But playoff series are typically won by either a superior team with more top-to-bottom talent or one capable of capitalizing on an advantageous matchup. 

On the heels of a 25-point blowout, the Celtics sure appear to check both boxes. 


Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and current heading into games on May 13.