BOSTON — The final defensive numbers don’t look that great.
The Cavs gave up more than 100 points for the eighth time in nine games this postseason. They allowed the Celtics to find an offensive rhythm in the second half, rebounding from a horrific shooting night to finish 41-of-88 (46.6 percent) from the field and 12-of-38 (31.6 percent) from 3-point range. Digging even deeper, the Cavs surrendered more uncontested shots (46) than contested ones (41).
And yet, the Cavs were pretty happy with their defensive performance. That’s because the three numbers that mattered most were 17, 36.8 and three — Isaiah Thomas’ point total, shooting percentage and free throw attempts.
“We’ve got to make it tough on him,” head coach Tyronn Lue said prior to the game. “We’ve got to try to keep him off the free-throw line. He’s a great scorer; we know that. But we’ve got to do it by committee. Just keep him off the free-throw line is the biggest thing. Make him make field goals and not free throws. He’s going to get some calls; we know that. But we’ve got to do a good job of just paying close attention to him. No open shots, no easy threes. Just make it tough for him.”
The Cavs have Thomas’ name at the top of the scouting report, just like every other opponent that plays the Celtics. He’s going to get the most attention, one of the reasons many around the NBA expected Boston to make a blockbuster trade for a second star at the deadline. Teams with one star have a ceiling this time of year and it’s about as tall as the 5-foot-9 Thomas.
During the Cavaliers’ pre-game preparations, they made a commitment to sell out, using two or even three guys to prevent him from turning the corner and get into the paint. They blitzed him with multiple defenders beyond the 3-point line, forcing the ball out of his hands and daring Boston’s secondary options to beat them — even though that meant giving up quality looks.
“We know Isaiah is dangerous, and when he gets going, the crowd really gets into it, their team gets into it, and it opens up a lot of things,” Lue said. “When you try to take him out of the series and try to make it tough on him, you’re going to give up some shots. In the third quarter, (Jae) Crowder made a few shots. Gerald Green made a few shots. But our main objective was to make it physical on Isaiah, try to take him out. So when you try and do that, you’re going to give up something.”
In Round One, even if the numbers indicated otherwise, Lue was happy with his defense because Indiana’s C.J. Miles was silent, Paul George was working hard for his looks and Lance Stephenson was chucking 3’s. In Round Two, Lue raved about the team’s attention to detail against DeMar DeRozan, staying down on his pump fakes and forcing him into tough outside shots.
Forget the overall numbers, it’s about playing the percentages. It’s about staying true to the primary objective.
“That’s kind of been our blueprint. We’re just taking the ball out of — whether it’s the first option or second option’s hand, and making other guys make plays,” Kevin Love said. “We know that they have a number of guys, that they’re well-coached as well. They have a lot of skill guys, a lot of guys that can shoot the basketball, a lot of guys that can score in bunches.
“We felt like we came in with a great mindset on the road, a great game plan, and just tried to make other guys make plays, maybe put them in uncomfortable situations. But more than anything, defensively we have the next-man-up mentality. We always have our brothers’ backs, and second, third and fourth efforts for us. Tonight we were pretty good on the defensive end.”
There are certainly areas to clean up before Game 2. The Cavs will likely work on those during Thursday’s practice.
After giving up a backdoor layup to Bradley, Tristan Thompson was forced to relive the breakdown on film at halftime. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert were also frustrated with those kinds of buckets. The Cavs weren’t too thrilled about giving Bradley 12 uncontested looks, the most of any Celtics player.
“You can’t stop everything,” Thompson said. “As long as you get a late contest. Crowder or (Marcus) Smart with the open 3’s we’re going to take our chance. But the guys we can’t leave open are (Avery) Bradley and Thomas.”
Still, this kind of defensive strategy takes discipline, trust and communication. It also requires the right personnel and right attitude.
“We’re not OK with (open looks), but it’s one of those things that we know that’s the game plan and we’re living with that until it’s time for the adjustment,” said Shumpert, who spent much of the night defending Thomas. “I think it helps our minds not to be as pissed after the ball goes in. Everybody doesn’t put their head down. The ball goes in and guys know we were supposed to give that up. So we take it out and we sprint the ball up the court.”
If the Celtics are going to win a game because Kelly Olynyk duplicates his Game 7 performance against the Washington Wizards, then so be it. On Wednesday, he went 1-of-6, including 1-of-4 on uncontested shots.
If Smart, a 36 percent 3-point shooter in the postseason, is going to knock down his wide-open looks then the Cavs will tip their proverbial cap. He went 0-of-3 from long range. The same goes for Al Horford, who got off to a wretched start before finishing with an admirable stat line (11 points, eight rebounds and six assists).
It just can’t be Thomas, who had 12 of his 19 shots contested.
Given the parameters Lue laid out prior to the game and how Shumpert defined success after, the final score isn’t the only thing that makes Game 1 a success.
“As long as you can keep him away from what he wants to do — even if that’s scoring,” Shumpert told cleveland.com. “If he’s doing what we want him to do then we will be all right. Him causing problems and getting guys in foul trouble and getting myself in foul trouble that’s something we’ve got to stay away from. I thought we did a good job tonight.”