Smith, Hill strug­gling against Celtics’ suf­fo­cat­ing de­fense

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By TOM WITHERS

CLEVE­LAND — J.R. Smith reached out, placed his hands on Al Hor­ford’s back and shoved Bos­ton’s big man out of bounds.

It was the only time Smith was on tar­get.

Smith’s shoddy per­for­mance in Game 2 — he missed all seven shots and com­mit­ted a fla­grant foul in 27 for­get­table min­utes — un­der­scored a star­tling dis­par­ity be­tween Cleve­land’s and Bos­ton’s start­ing back­courts that al­lowed the fear­less Celtics to with­stand a bril­liant, 42-point ef­fort by LeBron James and take a 2-0 se­ries lead.

Smith and point guard Ge­orge Hill were outscored 41-3 by Bos­ton’s Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, who were faster, hun­grier and maybe tougher.

“I don’t think tougher,” Smith said afterward, show­ing better de­fen­sive in­stincts than dur­ing the game. “They made shots, we missed shots at the end of the day. We had some good looks, they didn’t fall. For them play­ing on their home court, they fell. It’s a mat­ter for us to bounce back, go home, try and get (win) two, even the se­ries up and come back here.”

Thanks to the NBA’s odd sched­ul­ing, Game 3 is not un­til Satur­day, giv­ing Cavs coach Ty­ronn Lue plenty of time to con­sider tweaks to his start­ing lineup and ro­ta­tions. After a 25-point lam­bast­ing in the opener, Lue al­tered his front­court by putting Tris­tan Thomp­son with the first five and bring­ing Kyle Korver off the bench.

The moves worked as Thomp­son pro­vided needed en­ergy and Korver knocked down four 3-point­ers and had Bos­ton’s de­fense fo­cused on more than James.

Now, Lue has to pon­der an­other shake-up.

One op­tion is to re-in­sert Korver at small for­ward, sit Hill and slide James to the point, where he typ­i­cally plays any­way but where he’ll be more sus­cep­ti­ble to dou­ble teams and will have to work harder than he is al­ready.

An­other pos­si­bil­ity is to drop Smith, who is 2 of 16 from the field and missed all seven 3-point­ers, from the start­ing lineup, but that would be risky be­cause of his mer­cu­rial na­ture. Sit him and risk never get­ting him back.

Lue is will­ing to live with Smith’s streak­i­ness — he went 6 for 6 in Game 4 against the Rap­tors — but what he can’t af­ford are the de­fen­sive lapses that led to slow ro­ta­tions and gave Rozier and oth­ers wide-open looks in Game 2. Smith has been locked in de­fen­sively through­out the post­sea­son, so Lue is as­sum­ing he’ll get it to­gether.

Lue’s de­ci­sion not to play guard Jor­dan Clark­son for a sin­gle minute in Game 2 was cu­ri­ous, mostly be­cause Clark­son is quick enough to han­dle Rozier and he scored 10 points in Game 1.

Vet­eran Jose Calderon ap­pears to be out of con­sid­er­a­tion de­spite his steadi­ness and ex­pe­ri­ence. Lue may fear the 36-year-old will be tar­geted and ex­posed de­fen­sively.

Of course, there’s irony in Cleve­land hav­ing back­court is­sues in this se­ries.

A year ago, Kyrie Irv­ing av­er­aged 25.8 points in the Cavs’ five-game ram­page over the Celtics in the con­fer­ence fi­nals. Now an in­jured Irv­ing sits on Bos­ton’s bench in street clothes un­able to help his new team­mates while his pres­ence teases the Cava­liers, who have not ad­e­quately re­placed the All-Star since trad­ing him.

They are find­ing life in the play­offs is more dif­fi­cult with­out Irv­ing, who at times car­ried Cleve­land’s of­fense, giv­ing James a break and Lue a de­pend­able sec­ond scor­ing op­tion.

It’s easy to sec­ond-guess the de­ci­sions now, but it feels as if the Cavs’ trades of Der­rick Rose and Dwyane Wade at the dead­line were hasty. Cleve­land lacks enough play­mak­ers ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing their own shot or op­por­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers.

Hill has been un­usu­ally pas­sive in the first two games, and the Cavs need to get him go­ing.

And they cer­tainly need more from Smith, whose frus­tra­tion sur­faced at the worst pos­si­ble time when his hard foul on Hor­ford riled up the Celtics and their rowdy crowd.

As the ref­er­ees re­viewed the play, Bos­ton fans chanted pro­fanely at Smith, who smirked and later said the taunts didn’t bother him.

“I love it,” he said. “I don’t want the op­pos­ing fans to like me. That’s not why I’m here. They can chant and scream all they want. It ac­tu­ally makes me feel better about my­self. They know me.”

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