The Cavaliers say they aren’t panicking. But based on their performance in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, they’d better do something, and do it soon.
In losing 108-83 and 107-94 to the Kyrie Irving- and Gordon Hayward-less Boston Celtics, the Cavs have been largely offensive on offense and defenseless on defense, not to mention very iffy in the coaching department.
But the next two games are at Quicken Loans Arena, beginning Saturday at 8:30 p.m., so don’t expect major changes from coach Tyronn Lue, who started the fourth quarter of Game 2 with All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love sitting on the bench in a seven-point game.
“The reality is they did what they were supposed to do,” Lue said of the Celtics following Game 2 at TD Garden. “They took care of home court. We have to win one game here (in Boston). That’s our mindset. But going back home, we know we’ll play better.
“They’ve shown they haven’t played that well on the road (1-4). In the playoffs, they’ve played great at home (9-0). We’ve got to come out swinging. We’ve got to be aggressive. I think we’ve got to be physical, and we’ve got to have a physical mindset that they’re coming in playing tough. They’re aggressive, and we’ve got to match that.”
The Cavs have yet to do that for any decent length of time. They never had a chance in Game 1 — Boston led by 26 at halftime — and, though up 11 in the second period of Game 2 and by seven at halftime, quickly undid all that work by getting outscored 36-18 in another dreadful third quarter.
That run grew to 40-18 with James (42 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) and Love (22, 15, two) sitting to start the fourth period, a particularly perplexing move on a night when the rest of the team combined for 28 points on 12-for-33 shooting.
Subtract Kyle Korver (11 points on 4-for-8) and tip-in Tristan Thompson (eight on 4-for-6) and that drops to 11 points on 4-for-19.
J.R. Smith played 27 minutes and went scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting, this coming on the heels of a four-point, 2-for-9 showing in 29 minutes in Game 1. Smith also picked up a costly flagrant foul for pushing Al Horford in the back and blew a number of defensive assignments.
“He’s taken big shots, made big shots for us,” Lue said when asked about playing Smith down the stretch of Game 2. “No matter what he’s shooting in the game, we know he can get going at any point in time, so that’s the reason.”
George Hill, hailed by some as a savior less than a week ago, had three points on 1-for-4 shooting, two rebounds and one assist in 33 minutes, giving him nine points on 3-for-8 shooting, two rebounds and one assist in 61 minutes for the series.
Jeff Green, a Lue favorite, played 28 minutes and had six points, two rebounds and one assist, giving him 12, three and two in 48 minutes.
Rodney Hood had two points, two boards and one assist in 11 minutes, giving him 13, two and three in 30 minutes.
“I’m going to keep playing him,” Lue said. “Game 1, he really played well for us, going 5-for-12, getting in double figures, so that’s why I went with him.”
Yet Jordan Clarkson didn’t play at all in Game 2 after posting 10 points, three rebounds and no assists in Game 1.
“We don’t have a lot of guys that can drive and penetrate the paint once the ball comes out because we have the shooting,” Lue said. “We’ll be better going back home. We know that. (Boston) played well in that second half, and we’ve got to be ready to go on Saturday.”
The Celtics, by contrast, had four starters score 16 to 23 points in Game 1 and five score from 11 to 23 in Game 2, when their starting backcourt outscored Cleveland’s 41-3.
“I think we can definitely learn from (Boston),” Love said. “We have guys that are very capable, too, so we just need them to be themselves. Getting back home and digesting what we need to do over these next few days will be big for those guys, and going back home in general and playing at The Q will be huge.”
The Cavs are 5-1 at The Q in the 2018 playoffs, and role players tend to play better at home than on the road.
On the flip side, teams that fall behind 2-0 go on to lose that series 94 percent of the time, though the 2007 Cavs rallied to win four straight games over Detroit after facing such a deficit. James, in fact, is 6-0 lifetime in Games 3 and 4 when his team has trailed 2-0 in the East playoffs.
“We have an opportunity to go back home (and) protect home court,” James said. “We’re going to use these days to really dive in on what needs to be done to help our ballclub be successful. They did what they had to do, and now it’s our time to try to do that as well. … We’re going to see what we’re made of on Saturday.”
James was sensational in the first period of Game 2, tying his playoff career high with 21 points as Cleveland took a 27-23 lead, but he wasn’t quite the same after taking an inadvertent shoulder to the jaw from Jayson Tatum in the second quarter.
“When he came back, I don’t think he had the same punch that he had before he left as far as attacking the basket, playing with that force and power we talked about at shootaround,” Lue said. “We’ll see how he feels.”
James, who went to the locker room for a brief period and was diagnosed with a strained neck before returning late in the second quarter, didn’t agree with his coach’s assessment.
“I felt like I needed to go back to the locker room, which I did, and kind of recalibrate,” he said. “It was a tough blow, obviously incidental. His shoulder hit me right square in the jaw. Just wanted to go back to the back and make sure everything was fine. But it didn’t affect my game after that.”
It certainly seemed to affect the Cavs, who were outscored 59-39 in the second half.
But there’s no reason to panic.
“I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” James said. “You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day you can live with that. I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.”
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