Both the East and the West are knotted up, and as soon as we think we have all the answers, somebody changes the questions.
1. LeBron raises the temperature vs Celtics
The Facts: The Cavaliers evened up the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 after another stellar effort from LeBron James, which again helped his teammates (although to a lesser degree than game 3) give him the support needed to send the series back to Boston tied up.
In the two wins, James has scored 71 points on 25-40 shooting, with a substantial number of his shots happening in the post, at the rim, or off fast break opportunities. In game 4, the man to step up was Kyle Korver who, along with 14 points on 4-7 shooting, played surprisingly stout defense against the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown, one of their key youth brigade members. In fact, after Korver stuffed Brown’s shot for the 2nd time in the 1st half, the camera panned to Brown, sitting on the bench, wearing the look of a man who can’t understand how he had gotten blocked twice by a 37 year old dude who can’t jump and looks like a Land’s End chino shorts model.
Although the Celtics were never out of the game, Cleveland never let them get comfortable in their comeback attempt and key shot-making down the stretch sealed it.
The Reaction: One trend we saw from Boston in the 76ers series was their ability to not panic when Philly jumped on them early. They refocused, rallied, and put the 76ers down in 5 games. However, the opposite side of the same coin of course is that Boston kept allowing themselves to fall behind early, and that trend has continued through the last 3 games.
The difference in this round, and I don’t know if it’s something Cleveland made a mental note of (though it certainly appears that way) is that their initial push, especially on offense, is almost a given. But the game turns near the end of the 1st half and in much of the 3rd — that’s where Boston exerts itself to change the game’s trajectory.
Even though Boston technically won the 2nd half by 6 (and the final 3 quarters by 7), the Cavs maintained their defensive presence and continued to push the pace slightly faster than it looked like Boston wanted. While the C’s surged, they didn’t have those big breakout moments where their defense collapsed the Cavs’ offense and turned the opportunities into fast breaks, which is what we saw in game 2 in particular.
Meanwhile, this is something I argued in the Cavs-Pacers series. Collectively, Indy was a better team than Cleveland. But what LeBron can do — and he does it by constantly changing his pace, his point of attack, and the shots he looks for — is turn it into a possession game. Meaning, over the course of 100 possessions, Indy was statistically better, but on this possession, and then the next, and the next...LeBron was a better scenario than anything Indy could do.
And so it was last night where, as soon as Boston would recover and Cleveland would get tight, James went to the right block over and over again, backing down whoever he wanted to collect layups and fouls (Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown all finished with 5 fouls.
Heading into pivotal game 5, I believe Boston is going to need to figure out how to get off to a better start and not fall behind by double-digits in the 1st half again, otherwise they’re going to see plenty more of LeBron doing his “power point-forward” schtick again. And a big part of it will be to stop missing so many dunks and layups (unofficial count — 3 by Brown, 2 by Jason Tatum).
Celtics missed 15 dunks/layups during Game 4.— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) May 22, 2018
Maybe more painful: The Cavaliers turned those misses into 15 points (4-of-8 shooting, 7 free throws), per @ESPNStatsInfo
Jaylen Brown: "Just going too fast, too excited. Just need to slow down."
2. Warriors cost themselves home court with dismal 4th
The Facts: In a back and forth affair, the Rockets showed a surprising level of resiliency after starting the game down 12-0 to the Warriors, who looked to be continuing their dominance from game 3. Instead, James Harden, despite dozing off at one point, recovered nicely by putting Draymond Green on a poster.
R.K. commented to me that the box score looks like 4 different games, and he’s not far off. In every single quarter, one team or the other used a big run to push ahead, and after Golden State once again owned the 3rd, the Rockets took the 4th, 25-12.
Even worse for the Warriors, with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all engaged, they still only managed 3-18 shooting, 0-6 from three, and turned the ball over 4 times. It was fitting that Curry, who finished 1-8 in the quarter and 10-26 overall, missed an open three at the buzzer that could have sent it to OT.
Harden wasn’t much better than Curry overall, but Chris Paul came up huge late to solve the Warriors’ defense.
The Reaction: A funny thing happens to even the best teams when their fundamentals begin to break down. Golden State could have been Houston from game 3, they were so undisciplined offensively. And when the fundamentals break down, the ISO game takes over and players begin to do things that are often outside of their normal behavior.
But you know which player’s behavior was entirely normal, given the circumstances? One Kevin Wayne Durant. We talked about it earlier in the series — you don’t defend him with your length, you defend him with your legs. And lo and behold, when the Warriors went to him in the 2nd half, often it was the diminutive Chris Paul instead of the more prehensile Trevor Ariza or Clint Capela defending KD. Why? Because Paul uses his legs, and he wedges himself underneath Durant’s stretched-out form. When you do that, Durant turns into a fadeaway chucker, and not just that, but shots that start out 12-15 feet from the rim slowly drift until they’re 18-20 feet from the rim. As a result, Durant — who up to this point in the series was averaging 37 on 53% shooting — took many bad shots in the 2nd half, finished shooting only 4-10 overall and 1-5 in the 4th, often being guarded by the one guy who you’d think would have no shot at guarding him.