CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – No one will argue that the Boston Celtics are a better team without Isaiah Thomas, at least no one sane. But the man with perhaps the highest basketball IQ on Planet Earth knows that the team minus their star player presents one difficult aspect: a different look.
As the Celtics and Wizards went to seven games in their Eastern Conference Semifinal matchup, LeBron James and the Cavaliers game planned for both teams, but the defending champions did not prepare for the Celtics without their offensive focal point.
“Our preparation for this series was going against a team with Isaiah,” James said after Game 4. “They’re playing a lot differently now, so we’re trying to figure out exactly what they’re running, things of that nature, so it’s been very difficult on us without IT on the floor.”
The team that the Cavaliers saw in Game 3, otherwise known as Game 1 A.T., was one led by Thomas’s replacement, Marcus Smart. Even if the wine and gold had prepped for Smart in their time leading up, they almost certainly would not have planned on a 7-of-10 barrage from deep by the 29% 3-point shooter.
The team that emerged in Game 4 was not the same as that of Game 3, as Smart did not take a shot until the 2nd quarter, instead led by Jae Crowder’s 11 points out of the gate. The Celtics also trotted out their fourth starting lineup in as many games, this time with Kelly Olynyk getting the nod over the injured Amir Johnson.
Tristan Thompson noted that without the ball-dominant Thomas, the Celtics must work harder to get each other open.
“Without Isaiah, they’ve got to move the ball more, share the ball and feed off each other’s back cuts, screening and pick-and-pops,” Thompson said. “So multiple efforts are crucial for us.”
Despite the fluid lineups, the East’s top seed gave the Cavs fits on defense. The home team scored a respectable 47 points in the first half, but allowed 57 on 21-of-45 shooting, a number that could have been unsightly had Boston not missed 11-of-17 3-pointers in the first 24 minutes.
His team with no answers early, and the road team forcing him into foul trouble, James gave credit to the man in charge of the opposing sideline.
“Just because of IT being a huge piece of the puzzle for them offensively, so they had to kind of re-shape. That’s the beauty of having Brad Stevens as your coach,” LeBron said. “You’re able to re-shape what you do offensively and still be in a good rhythm. It’s been challenging for us, plays out of the time outs, they’ve been killing us on ATOs (after time outs), and keeping us off-balance.”
The beauty of having James on your team, aside from the obvious physical ability and basketball skills, is that he is constantly watching, plotting his attack. After playing just 4:36 in the second quarter, James was able to read the game from the outside, a potential blessing in disguise.
The Cavaliers erupted for 40 points in the 3rd quarter with James back on the floor, as Kyrie Irving hit the apex of his playoff career-best scoring night.
The loss may have been more than just that for Boston, as they now head back to the Garden not just on the brink of elimination, but with more tape on their altered look, and more time for James and the Cavs to piece together the new puzzle.
“Now this is two games that we have, we’ve been able to see them, we’re going to get a better understanding,” James said. “In the second half, we kind of got a little bit of rhythm and I think we’ll be a lot better…in Game 5.”