After a hot first quarter, the Celtics blitzed the Cavaliers’ second unit in the second quarter and carried the momentum all the way through the game, surviving a 38-point effort from LeBron James en route to a 95-89 victory.
-Starting on a happy note: LeBron seems to be picking up right where he left off last season. An absolutely monstrous game to the tune of 38/4/8 on 68% True Shooting, with 2 steals and 4 absolutely crushing blocks thrown in for good measure. His jumper is the big story-LeBron was 3-5 from midrange and 4-9 from beyond the arc, giving him 18 points on 14 jumpers. That’s a 64% eFG on those shots, which is just monstrous. He looks extremely comfortable with that stroke, which is so good to see, considering how badly he struggled with his jumper out of the gate last season.
The downside is the 5 turnovers-LeBron was definitely forcing a lot of home run passes and seeing them deflected, but a lot of that is a function of what I’ll get to below.
-Pretty much all of the other news is of the unpleasant variety. The 2nd-highest scorer on the Cavaliers had 12 points, and LeBron was the only Cavalier to shoot better than 50% from the floor. That’s not going to get it done against a team as good as the Celtics.
-First of all: there is no excuse to have LeBron and Shaq off the floor at the same time. It’s absolutely ridiculous. There are two players on this team who can consistently get their own shots efficiently and/or command a double-team, and their offensive strengths don’t even play off each other that well. The second unit has always been stagnant offensively, and prone to miserable scoring droughts if the outside shot isn’t falling. Now the Cavs have a guy who can change that, and he’s watching from the bench. I am livid about this.
-And after a hot start thanks to a couple of nice post-up baskets, Shaq really wasn’t helping the first team offense all that much. The lane looked extremely cluttered with him and Andy down there, he wasn’t opening much up passing from the low-post or working off the ball off the penetration of others. The worst thing was how disinterested he seemed setting screens and moving away from the basket. He’d just sort of amble over to an area, put his hands over his crotch, and stand there doing nothing as the man he was supposed to be screening went right around him and disrupted the play. If Shaq wants to play with Varejao, he has to make an impact with activity and good screens on the perimeter. Ben Wallace was able to be a part of a very good offensive unit last season doing only these things.
-And defensively, Shaq was regularly being exposed on the pick-and-roll. Pick-and-Roll defense has always been a problem for Shaq, but I was hoping that Mike Brown would be able to turn him into a defensive asset the way he did with Z. That wasn’t the case tonight, as Shaq regularly got caught in no-mans land and got blown by on the defensive end. I’m trying to breathe, seeing as how this was Shaq’s first regular season game with the team and the Celtics have one of the best defenses in the league, but a lot of the nightmares I’ve been having for the past few months came true tonight, so I’m a bit freaked out.
-The other big worry was how quiet Mo Williams was offensively. 3-8 from the field, 3 assists, and 0 threes for Mo. And if I remember correctly, all of his field goals came off the bounce. For a guy who’s most valuable when he’s shooting catch-and-shoot threes, this is a monstrous red flag. He just didn’t have the space to work with or the good off-ball screens he needed to get free on his catches, and he really suffered without guys who could play with him on the perimeter.
-Offensively, the team took a step backward tonight. This was a drive-and-kick team who could go to high-post action, players catch-and-shooting behind back picks, curl plays coming off the sidelines, weak-side motion off screen-rolls, everything. It was a lot of jumpers, and only LeBron could really be counted on in crunch-time, but there was great movement, great spacing, and could run smoothly for the entire first quarter without LeBron initiating any plays from the perimeter. Tonight, it was a big, ugly cluster looking for a post set, not swinging the ball from side to side, having guys smothered out on the perimeter, trying to force passes in a cluttered lane, and ultimately saying “screw it” and having LeBron go ISO. The ball was just not moving.
-Delonte’s absence hurt. Anthony Parker actually looked pretty good, although I don’t love him shooting fadeaway jumpers off a pin-down early in the shot clock. But he was solid as a spot-up shooter, and was generally comfortable making good passes when the opportunity presented himself. But he was never really a threat to get to the rim, and the team definitely missed Delonte’s playmaking-he takes the ball from side-to-side as well as any other Cavalier, which was definitely missing tonight. And a big part of the 2nd unit fiasco had to do with Boobie having to fill in at shooting guard, where he was just completely overmatched.
-Varejao didn’t have anyone stretching the floor up top and letting him dive low for pick-and-roll finishes, and ended up going 3-9 from the field, although he did have a surprising amount of success with shot fakes.
-Zydrunas continues to look like a terrible fit on the bench, forcing some deep jumpers, not getting any offensive boards, and finishing 1-4 from the field.
-Defensively, the speed wasn’t there to slow down Boston’s drive-and-kick game, and the result was the Celtics making nearly half of their threes.
Alright, that’s all I can really say about this game. Although I will say I have a perverse sense of relief about losing home game #1 this early in the season-it does take some pressure off the team in the regular season, and I do feel like the Cavs’ “we’re invincible at home” mentality came around to bite them when they lost game 1 of the ECF last season. Right now, I’m really not sold on starting two guys who can’t shoot, and I remain more convinced than ever that Shaq should be coming off the bench. But it’s the first game, and this is a heck of a team to play with two brand-new starters. It’s not time to be Chicken Little, not even Liz Phair’s crazy, threatening, and vaguely awesome version of Chicken Little. There needs to be more movement. There needs to be high-to-low post action. The bigs need to be active freeing up the guards on the perimeter. LeBron can’t be in bailout mode for 45 minutes. Hopefully these things will come. The good news is that the Cavs get to play the Raptors tomorrow, so hopefully they’ll look like the team they’ll need to look like. Until tomorrow.