Mental lapses doom Celtics in Game 4

NBA.com Global on May 22, 2018 03:42 PM
Mental lapses doom Celtics in Game 4
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, right, drives to the basket against Boston Celtics' Marcus Morris in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals, Monday, May 21, 2018, in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won 111-102. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

CLEVELAND –  There are three ways for a basketball team to make the most of its talent. It can play hard, it can play together, and it can play smart. The Boston Celtics played harder and more together in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals than they did two nights earlier, when they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers by 30 points.

"We responded," Jaylen Brown said afterward. "It was a better game and a better effort by our team."

The Celtics played hard and played together. Two out of three ain't bad, but two out of three isn't enough on the road against a team led by LeBron James. The Celtics didn't play very smart on Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), and a 111-102 victory for the Cavs has this series tied at two games apiece.

Really, the first 24 minutes of Game 4 was one of the dumber halves of basketball you will ever see from a team that had been putting on a clinic of execution over an eight-game stretch from Game 7 of the first round through Game 2 of the conference finals.

In the first quarter, Brown pushed the ball up the floor after a Cleveland bucket, only to have Marcus Smart – 29 percent from three-point range in his career – shoot a 3 (his second missed jumper in as many possessions) with 19 seconds on the shot clock. Shortly thereafter, with the Cavs in the bonus, the Celtics committed three straight fouls more than 15 feet from the basket, sending Cleveland to the line for free points. And with the shot clock off at the end of the first, Brown tried to score too early and missed a dunk, giving the Cavs another chance to build on what was already a 16-point lead.

In the first six minutes of the second quarter, the Celtics fouled the Cavs three times on jump shots. Late in the second, Smart rebounded a George Hill miss and, as he was falling out of bounds, tossed the ball behind his back … right to Hill for an easy layup. And on the ensuing Celtics possession, Semi Ojeleye, who has made five pull-up three-pointers this season, attempted one with 10 seconds left to shoot.

It seemed that no Celtic was immune to being boneheaded. Brown said that they were "just going too fast, too excited."

"We need to slow down," he said. "We missed a bunch of easy opportunities. We made some bad turnovers and things like that."

The second half was better, but the Celtics never aggressively attacked Kevin Love after he picked up his fifth foul early in the third quarter (and returned to start the fourth). Marcus Morris made sure that Smart wasn't the only guy who saved the ball under the opponent's basket, gifting James with a layup after initially intercepting his pass during a crucial stretch. And when the Celtics had chances to make it a two-possession game in the fourth, they took just a few too many bad shots.

"I think obviously we've got to play better than we did," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said when asked about mental mistakes. "I'll go through film and we'll re-look at it and determine the main reasons why we were where we were, but certainly we didn't play a perfect game."

So the series is tied 2-2 and with the way things have gone, it has become more difficult for Stevens to downplay the home-road narrative that he'd like to keep from seeping into his locker room. While the coach has said that he wasn't "losing sleep over where we're playing right now," his team clearly hasn't played like it's been oblivious of the environment.

To Stevens' point, the game should be the same, whether you're playing at home or on the road. The result should be about how the players play, not the color of the floor or the support of the crowd. But that simply hasn't been the case in these playoffs for the Celtics, who are 9-0 at TD Garden and now 1-6 on the road.

"It's much harder," Al Horford admitted. "We have to be better. We have to execute better. We have to do all those things in order to win. It's hard to win on the road, as we found out here."

Over the last five years, home-court advantage has been worth less than three points per game in the regular season and a little more than four points per game in the playoffs. This year, the Celtics ranked third with 28 regular-season wins on the road. But in the playoffs, the difference between the Celtics at home (plus-11.3) and on the road (minus-12.0) has been more than 23 points per game. Their only road win (Game 3 of the conference semifinals in Philadelphia) came in overtime.

In the conference finals, the Celtics are a plus-38 in Boston and a minus-39 in Cleveland. They haven't been totally "rattled" at Quicken Loans Arena, but they've been rushed, uncomfortable, and undisciplined.

And because of that, the Celtics will be coming back to Cleveland for Game 6. They don't need to win here to win the series, but given how they've played in Cleveland so far, they need to stay undefeated at home.

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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