5 Keys for Cavs as Eastern Conference Finals Shift Back to Boston
Now 7-1 at Quicken Loans Arena in these playoffs, the Cavs will travel for Game 5 in Boston, where the Celtics have been even better. Boston (9-0) is the only team to advance past the first round and still not suffer a home defeat.
Cleveland was awful in Games 1 and 2 in Beantown, losing by a combined 58 points. The Cavaliers have to win at least one road game this series to advance to the NBA Finals. The Celtics do not.
If the Cavaliers can win Game 5 on the road to go up 3-2 in the series, it should be the end of Boston's season, given their 1-6 mark outside of Eastern Massachusetts.
Despite their struggles earlier in this series, the Cavs have figured out enough of what works against this young, injury-plagued Celtics team. If head coach Ty Lue and the Cavaliers nail down the following five keys, they'll end Boston's perfect home streak.
High Usage for George Hill
George Hill is probably the third-best player on the Cavaliers now. When he plays like it, success usually follows.
There are times, like in Games 1 and 2, however, that Hill can fade into the background and be fine with keeping the ball moving while not pursuing his own shot. For a Cavs team desperate for production from its role players, this isn't good enough.
Hill totaled eight points and one assist in Cleveland's two losses against Boston, while two victories have seen him rack up 26 points and five assists in total.
"We just need him to play with more pace, miss or make getting the ball up fast," head coach Ty Lue told Bleacher Report before Game 3. "Run into our double drag situations, flow situations. We've got to move it around a little bit. We've got to do a good job of moving him around and letting him come off dribble handoffs and things like that because they're trying to switch. Him just being more aggressive and playing with more speed and pace."
The more Hill looks to push and seek his own shot, the better Cleveland's offense becomes. Hill has a usage rating of 14.5 percent in eight postseason wins, compared to 12.8 percent in four losses.
Hill responded to Lue's cry to play at a faster pace, increasing his average speed on offense from 4.04 miles per hour in Games 1 and 2 to 4.39 in Games 3 and 4, per NBA.com's tracking data.
A good defender and Cleveland's best ball-handler outside of LeBron James, the Cavaliers need another high-usage, up-tempo performance from Hill in Game 5.
Keeping Tristan Thompson Glued to Al Horford
This is the fourth straight postseason Al Horford has faced the Cavaliers, twice with the Atlanta Hawks and now in his second playoffs with the Celtics. Horford is just 3-14 against Cleveland during this time, with zero series wins to date.
While LeBron James may have had a little something to do with this, it's been center Tristan Thompson who's become Horford's kryptonite.
Ty Lue has been adamant about keeping Kevin Love as his starting center this season, but Thompson's defensive play on Horford has forced him to change his starting lineup and overall rotation.
Per NBA.com's matchup data, Horford is shooting just 3-of-11 (27.3 percent) in the 137 possessions Thompson has defended him this series. That's a low mark for someone who was previously having his way with Giannis Antetokounmpo (18-of-32, 56.3 percent) and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Joel Embiid (8-of-13, 61.5 percent).
Horford is an All-Star and solid overall scorer from almost anywhere on the floor, and he has absolutely torched any Cavalier not named Thompson. Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and James are allowing Horford to shoot 68.2 percent this series.
Lue needs to match up Thompson on Horford as closely as possible to neutralize his overall offensive game.
No More LeBron-Crippling Lineups
When the Cavs were trying to mount a comeback in the second half of Game 2 to potentially even the series, Ty Lue called upon a frontcourt trio of Tristan Thompson, Jeff Green and LeBron James.
James was a given, of course. Thompson has proven his value in the series and Green is fine in short bursts.
That being said, these three should never share the court. James thrives offensively when he has driving lanes and open shooters. A Thompson-Green combo actually works to counteract this, thus meaning the Cavs are essentially shooting themselves in the foot.
James-Green-Thompson lineups carry a net rating of minus-18.9 in 78 playoff minutes. The only contest this series where Lue didn't use Green and Thompson together at all was in Game 3. Cleveland won by 30.
Lue needs to use Green less, period. After he wisely only put him in the post during the regular season (just 3.0 percent of his minutes came at small forward), Lue has frequently gone with bigger lineups in the postseason. Now 25.0 percent of Green's time has come on the wing, a curious decision for a player who only made 31.2 percent of his three-pointers this year.
At no point should Green and Thompson play together. Using either one with Kevin Love is fine. Putting one at center and James at power forward works as well. Let Thompson and Green "space" the floor with James, and a sinkhole might as well develop in the paint. The defense will be grateful.
Let It Fly
The three-point shot has been a necessary ally for the Cavs over the past three postseasons, where players like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, JR Smith, Kyle Korver and Channing Frye would space the floor and knock down outside shots at a high efficiency rate.
With 40 percent of that group now gone, Cleveland has to be more selective in the way it shoots the ball.
After knocking down just four total three-pointers in Game 1, the Cavs rode 17 outside makes to their 30-point win in Game 3. That tied for the most the Cavaliers have made in a game since shaking up their roster in early February.
"I think G-Hill (George Hill) getting going early, taking his shots," Lue told Bleacher Report after the game. "Defenders try to go under and he stepped back and made a couple threes. JR [Smith], catch-and-shoot. I'd rather JR take a contested shot than put it down and do too much. Korver coming in and making shots off the bench. I thought we did a good job of moving the basketball, making the extra pass. When we play like that guys will get open shots and we just have to make them."
Cleveland is making 11.4 three-pointers in their playoff wins and just 8.8 in losses. It made a whopping 15.2 threes in victories last postseason.
Korver (47.4 percent) is the main weapon here, while Jordan Clarkson (44.4 percent) and even LeBron James (39.1 percent) have been solid this series. Hill (31.3 percent) and Love (27.8 percent) should be better as well.
With so few players who can generate their own offense, Cleveland needs to keep the ball popping around the perimeter and into an open shooter's hands.
Use Kevin Love to Get LeBron More Rest
He's probably the only player the Cavs can run an offense through while LeBron James catches a breather, something he hasn't been able to do a lot of this postseason. James' 609 total minutes are more than any other NBA player, giving him an average of 40.6 per game.
If the Cavs want to decrease this number before a potential fourth straight Finals trip (and eighth straight for James), Love is the key.
While Love's production has been good when he shares the floor with James (14.6 points, 11.4 rebounds per 36 minutes), it's increased dramatically (27.7 points, 13.5 rebounds) when he's in the game and James rests.
Putting Love on the floor with George Hill has been even better, as Love sees a scoring increase of 12.0 points per 100 possessions playing with Cleveland's starting point guard. Lue likes to use this combo in the high pick-and-roll, forcing Boston to switch smaller guards onto Love or risk him shooting an open three-pointer.
James can get extended breaks, but only if Lue uses Love (and hopefully Hill) in his absence.