By the Numbers: Why the Celtics are up 2-0 over the Cavs

NBA.com Global on May 19, 2018 08:32 AM
By the Numbers: Why the Celtics are up 2-0 over the Cavs
Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris (13) and teammates celebrate near the end of the second half in Game 2 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Tuesday, May 15, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

Are we witnessing the end of LeBron James' dominance of the Eastern Conference? For the first time in the last eight years, James' team trails an East playoff series by two games.

And the team that's up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals is the one missing two of its three highest-paid players and one that struggled to get through the first round almost as much as the Cleveland Cavaliers did. Forget what we've seen from Cleveland all season; If you watched the Boston Celtics through six games against the Milwaukee Bucks, you'd have a hard time believing that they'd go on to win seven of their next eight playoff games, with the postseason's best NetRtg (point differential per 100 possessions) over that stretch.

So how did we get here? Here are some numbers to know about the Celtics and Cavs, with the series taking three days off before it resumes with Game 3 in Cleveland on Saturday (Sunday, PHL time)).

Celtics score without leading scorer

The Celtics ranked 18th offensively in the regular season, slightly worse than the league average in effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate (and right at the league average in turnover rate). They ranked third in effective field goal percentage from outside the paint, but 28th in field goal percentage in the paint. In 22 games without Kyrie Irving, they scored just 102.6 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would have ranked 25th).

In the playoffs, the Celtics have been more efficient offensively (107.7 points scored per 100 possessions) than the Cavs (107.4). Boston is one of only two playoff teams (Indiana was the other) that have scored more efficiently in the postseason than they did in the regular season.

Through the first two rounds, the Celtics' effective field goal percentage took a dip, but they cut down on turnovers and saw an increase in free throw rate. In the conference finals, they've been able to get to the basket more often, with 38 percent of their shots coming in the restricted area, up from 32 percent over the first two rounds.

And that goes to the fact that they're playing a bad defensive team; The Cavs ranked 29th defensively this season. In the previous 40 years, no team that had ranked in the bottom thee defensively in the regular season had won a playoff series.

So the Cavs have already made history, but it's not a coincidence that the only other team that scored more points per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in the regular season is the team -- the Indiana Pacers -- that the Cavs played in the first round. Even in getting swept by the Cavs in the conference semifinals, the Toronto Raptors were just as efficient offensively (110.1 points scored per 100 possessions) as they were in the first round (110.2).

But the Celtics had an improved offense even before they got to this series. They've been incredibly balanced, with six guys in their rotation having a postseason usage rate between 19.6 and 24.0 (none higher than 28th overall in these playoffs). As Al Horford said after Game 1, they've found "what fits this group." They've also found, against the Philadelphia 76ers and Cavs in particular, matchups that can be taken advantage of. They've been able to execute with precision and patience.

Cavs' not-so-great shots

Two things stand out about the Cleveland offense as it has scored less than a point per possession in each of the first two games.

First, LeBron James has just 18 total points in the restricted area after averaging a postseason-high 14.4 points per game in the restricted area through the first two rounds. The Celtics have done well in transition (the Cavs have just 16 total fast break points) and in staying in front of James in half-court situations.

Even when he scored 21 points in the first quarter of Game 2, five of his eight buckets came from outside the paint. And over the two games, only 27 percent of his shots have come from the restricted area, down from 41 percent through the first two rounds.

James has shot 77 percent in the restricted area and 29 percent from 3-point range in the playoffs, so if most of his offense continues to come from the perimeter, the Celtics are in great shape.

The other thing that stands out (regarding the Cleveland offense) from Games 1 and 2 is that the Cavs have shot just 1-for-10 on corner 3-pointers. Game 1 was just the fourth game this season in which the Cavs didn't make a corner three, and the two games are just the third time in the four seasons since James returned to Cleveland that they've made fewer than two corner threes over a two-game stretch.

Corner threes are one thing that distinguishes the Toronto series from the other two that the Cavs have played. They averaged 5.3 per game against the Raptors, but just 2.3 against the Pacers and now, 0.5 against the Celtics.

It's about the attempts as much as it is about the success rate. In the regular season, Boston opponents took only 19 percent of their 3-pointers from the corners. That was the lowest opponent rate in the league.

The lack of corner threes is tied to James' lack of shots in the restricted area. Because the Celtics have done a good enough job of staying in front of James, they've been able to (generally) stay at home on the Cavs' shooters. If the Cavs can find a way to get their star to the basket, the Boston defense will have to react and other things will open up.

Matching up down low

The Cavs started Tristan Thompson in Game 2, with the thought that he had matchup advantage (on the glass, in particular) against Horford. In last year's conference finals, the Cavs outscored the Celtics by 81 points in 134 minutes with both Thompson and Horford on the floor.

In this series, the Cavs are a plus-4 in 18 minutes with Thompson on the floor and Horford playing center, and that probably keeps Thompson in the starting lineup for Game 3. Having been outscored by 38 points overall in the series, Cleveland should see some encouragement in any configuration that has produced a positive point differential.

Before Game 2, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he wouldn't change his starting lineup if the Cavs did. But the Celtics didn't let the Horford-Thompson matchup last too long, especially in the second half, when Aron Baynes subbed in for Jayson Tatum less than 2 1/2 minutes into the third quarter.

Thompson has played more minutes (20) in the series with Horford at power forward (alongside Baynes or Greg Monroe) than with Horford at center (18). And the Celtics have outscored the Cavs by nine points in those 20 minutes with Thompson on the floor and Horford at the four.

Will change of venue matter?

With their wins in Games 1 and 2, the Celtics are 9-0 at home in the postseason. If they remain undefeated at TD Garden, they'll win this series.

But the Celtics have been more than 20 points per 100 possessions better at home (plus-10.8) than on the road (minus-9.4) in the postseason. Their only road win (Game 3 at Philadelphia) came in overtime and the only team with a bigger home-road NetRtg differential (26.5) in these playoffs is the team (Milwaukee) that the Celtics played in the first round.

The Cavs are 5-1 at home and have been 11.7 points per 100 possessions better at Quicken Loans Arena than they've been on the road in the playoffs. But four of those five home wins have been by four points or less. They haven't exactly taken care of business at The Q.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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