(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Winslow Townson)
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals saw Boston clinically dismantle both LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. They dominated each of the first two quarters to lead 61-35 at the main break, and despite a third quarter fightback from the Cavs, the Celtics were able to run out comfortable 108-83 winners.
The main story to come out of the game was the defense of Marcus Morris, who, with a well-drilled unit behind him, was able to nullify the impact of LeBron. James was kept to just 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting, and his nine assists were accompanied by seven turnovers. Morris managed 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting himself in what was a typically even offensive performance from the Celtics. Jaylen Brown top scored for them with 23 points, Al Horford dropped in 20, and Jayson Tatum added 16.
Three keys to the game
LeBron’s recovery - It isn’t often that James is restricted to a game like he had on Monday, and it’s unlikely that he’ll play as poorly as that for the rest of the series. Morris, however, is one of the few players in the league who actually matches up reasonably well against him, and being backed by arguably the best defense in the NBA makes it that little bit easier to do again. If LeBron doesn’t improve significantly in Game 2, the Celtics will take a 2-0 lead, but he won’t lay down easily.
Boston’s ball movement - This was a feature of the Celtics game in Game 1. After averaging 22.5 dimes a game in the regular season and 21.6 during the playoffs, Boston dished out 27 assists in the Game 1 rout. These were accompanied by just nine turnovers, well down on the 12.3 they’ve averaged throughout the playoffs so far.
3-point shooting - LeBron’s woes aside, the entire Cavaliers lineup struggled hugely from long range in the opening game of the series, while the Celtics were reasonable. The Cavs went 4-for-26 from long range, and no individual player hit more than a single 3-point attempt. In contrast, the Celtics managed 33 points from 3-pointers, going a solid 11-for-30 from beyond the arc.
Matchup to watch
LeBron James vs Marcus Morris - This is quite obviously the most important matchup of the game. Morris excelled in a way even he couldn’t have expected in Game 1. Not only did he manage to curb the influence of LeBron, but he was actually the better player out of the two. Realistically, keeping LeBron below 30 points and ten assists would be considered a win, so to keep him to 31.3% shooting and a nearly identical assist to turnover ratio while dropping 21 efficient points of his own was an unbelievable effort.
LeBron rarely has bad games back-to-back though, particularly in the playoffs, and he will come out breathing fire in Game 2. Expect him to be particularly aggressive in the opening quarter, looking to attack both Morris and the rim at any opportunity. If Morris can even go close to repeating his Game 1 performance, Cleveland don’t stand a chance, but if LeBron can step up in a big way, the series could easily be tied heading back to Ohio.
Boston Celtics predicted starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Jaylen Brown | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Marcus Morris | C - Al Horford
Cleveland Cavaliers predicted starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - Kyle Korver | SF - JR Smith | PF - LeBron James | C - Kevin Love
It would be surprising not to see LeBron bounce back. Monday’s game was just the third time in these playoffs where he has failed to pass 25 points, and his responses to the previous two occasions make for scary reading for Boston fans. After 24 points against Indiana in Game 1, he bounced back with 46 points on 17-for-24 shooting, and after 22 points in Game 6 of the same series he came out and scored 45 points to accompany eight boards, seven assists and four steals in the series decider.
Though James will surely put in a much better performance, it’s hard to go past Boston at the -1.0 point line offered by oddsmakers after their 25 point victory in Game 1. No doubt this will be a significantly closer game, but the Celtics deserve to be favorites, and if they win will likely do it by more than a solitary point.
Expect a really close one. Boston will be confident after Game 1, but they will be fully aware of the offensive capabilities of the Cavs at their best, so expect a typically committed and disciplined defensive performance.
LeBron will improve significantly to drop a 30-plus point triple-double, and Korver will contribute more than the five points he dished up in Game 1. Ultimately though, it won’t be enough against the much better all-around team in Boston. The Celtics will again have all five starters chip in close to 15 points, and defensively restrict Cleveland enough to scrape home with a 104-101 win.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 8:30pm ET.