Celtics fac­ing up­hill chal­lenge

Top-seeded Bos­ton can’t af­ford to let LeBron roll over them again in Game 2

The Province - - SPORTS | BASKETBALL - KYLE HIGHTOWER

BOS­TON — LeBron James did pretty much what­ever he wanted to against the Celtics in the Cava­liers’ dom­i­nat­ing win in Game 1 of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals.

He was ef­fi­cient, scor­ing from the out­side, rolling down­hill and get­ting to the rim at will, dish­ing to his team­mates and lock­ing down Bos­ton’s scor­ers when­ever called upon.

With home court ad­van­tage gone, the Celtics face a vir­tual must-win Game 2 sit­u­a­tion on Fri­day.

Bos­ton must find a way to slow­down James while not get­ting eaten up by a sup­port­ing cast, which other than Kevin Love’s big game, didn’t pro­duce at its usual high rate.

Oh, and there’s ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion for Cleve­land — now 9-0 in these play­offs — which could earn an­other long rest if it makes quick work of the Celtics.

But here’s the rub for top-seeded Bos­ton on Fri­day night: James said he wasn’t even play­ing at peak con­di­tion af­ter Cleve­land’s 10-day lay­off be­tween rounds.

“I felt OK last night,” James said on Thurs­day.

“I knew I wouldn’t feel that great af­ter the game, and I don’t feel that great right now ... But I should be much bet­ter (Fri­day).”

Bet­ter than 38 points, nine re­bounds and seven as­sists? Good luck with that, Bos­ton.

Still, James said, the Cavs are men­tally pre­par­ing them­selves for the Celtics’ best shot in Game 2.

“There’s go­ing to be some ad­just­ments made from both sides. We have to be ready for it,” he said.

“Ob­vi­ously, we don’t know the ex­act ad­just­ments, but we know they’re go­ing to make ad­just­ments. That’s what good teams do, and we have to be ready for what­ever they bring to the ta­ble.”

Most of the Cavs’ dam­age in Game 1 was done by only two play­ers — James and Love.

Kyrie Irv­ing had just 11 points on 4-of-11 shoot­ing, and usu­ally de­pend­able sharp­shoot­ers J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver were a com­bined 2-for-8 as coach Ty­ronn Lue used a dif­fer­ent sec­ond unit to start the sec­ond quar­ter with James rest­ing.

A loss on Fri­day would also leave Bos­ton with the daunt­ing propo­si­tion of hav­ing to win four out of five games to cap­ture the se­ries — a nearly im­pos­si­ble task against a team that, since James re­turned to Cleve­land in 2014-15, has a 33-4 play­off record against East­ern Con­fer­ence op­po­nents.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens said his op­ti­mism re­mains high, and that he was “re­ally en­cour­aged” by his team’s per­for­mance over the fi­nal 18 min­utes of the game. It in­cluded get­ting within 11 points with less than 2 min­utes to play.

But if the Celtics are go­ing to pick them­selves up, it must start with All-Star Isa­iah Thomas, who scored 17 points, but had to work for ev­ery sin­gle one just to fin­ish 7 for 19 from the field. He also had a team-high four turnovers — an­other red flag for Bos­ton’s prospects.

For his part, Thomas said there doesn’t need to be a lot of soul search­ing.

“There’s noth­ing to fig­ure out,” Thomas said.

“They play their tra­di­tional way. I mean, they def­i­nitely showed a few bod­ies that was ag­gres­sive on me, but that’s noth­ing I haven’t seen this whole year. I mean, I’ve seen it all ... I’ve just got to be more ag­gres­sive, make plays, make shots, and go from there.”

A big­ger prob­lem for Bos­ton is that James scored on all seven de­fend­ers that the Celtics threw at him in Game 1 — Crow­der, Thomas, Mar­cus Smart, Al Hor­ford, Jaylen Brown, Ger­ald Green and Kelly Olynyk.

Con­versely, James has shown an abil­ity to com­pletely sti­fle Thomas on the de­fen­sive end. On the lone one-on-one pos­ses­sion in which Thomas was guarded by James — in the sec­ond quar­ter — the Celtics guard was called for a trav­el­ling vi­o­la­tion af­ter James cut off his driv­ing lane, con­tested his awk­ward layup at­tempt and forced Thomas to catch his own shot, re­sult­ing in a turnover.

And even if Thomas can re­dis­cover his shot, he will need more scor­ing help against the Cavs’ Big Three. It’s a lux­ury not lost on Lue. “Any given night, it could be Kyrie, could be LeBron, could be Kevin, Korver, J.R. (Smith), Tris­tan (Thomp­son),” Lue said.

“So we just take what the de­fence gives us, and that’s how we try to play. And what­ever guys are do­ing, we try to ride the hot hand and ev­ery­one else will fill in.”

So, with James maybe 100 per cent, and more op­tions wait­ing in the wings, the Celtics in­deed face an up­hill chal­lenge.

— GETTY IMAGES FILES

LeBron James of the Cava­liers drives to the bas­ket against Bos­ton’s Kelly Olynyk dur­ing Game 1 of the East fi­nal. The Celtics threw seven dif­fer­ent de­fend­ers at James but he still scored 38 points.

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