The Celtics are on the brink of elimination as they get set to take on the Cavaliers in Game 4 at the TD Garden come Sunday afternoon. Despite keeping things close in the first three games, the C's still find themselves down 0-3 in this best of 7 first round series.
Brad Stevens has gotten his squad off to great starts, but it's after halftime where they can't seem to get over the hump. The Celtics have never led in the third or fourth quarter of this series. If they want to extend their season and fight to see a Game 5 back in Cleveland, Boston is going to need a near perfect day.
Here are 4-keys to victory that could save the Celtics season for a few more days and avoid getting swept.
1. Control the offensive glass
In Game 3 the Celtics and Cavs were tied for overall rebounds at 45 apiece, but it was Cleveland's second chance points that did the C's in. The Cavaliers grabbed 11 offensive rebounds to the Celtics 9. Two costly offensive boards by Tristan Thompson (lead the league at nearly 4 a game) with less than two-minutes left found a wide open Kevin Love on back-to-back possessions to nail two-3-pointers after Evan Turner had cut their lead to 95-92. Thompson grabbed 7 rebounds on the night (5 offensive) and it seemed like each time the C's got a stop down the stretch, the Cavs had another 24 seconds to burn and find a 3-point shooter like Love or J.R. Smith, who finished with 10 made 3's (30 points) between the two. Celtics have to find a way to crash the boards on both ends of the floor in Game 4 and not give up second chance opportunities.
2. Limit turnovers
The Celtics are averaging 13.3 turnovers through the first three games. They turned the ball over 15 times in Game 3 (the most in the series), that led to 20 Cavalier points. Evan Turner, who has been the C's primary ball-handler, has done a pretty good job of taking care of the ball (2.3 turnovers per game) so far but his teammates have to do the same. Good-ball movement comes from consistent rotations and less dribbling, thus not forcing tough passes that can lead to possible Cleveland steals (9 in Game 3). The pick-and-roll has worked wonders for Stevens as the C's outscored the Cavs 48-28 in the paint on Thursday. Taking the ball to the hole more will limit turnovers and give the Celtics more chances to get to the free-throw line. Remember that by now LeBron knows what to expect when the Celtics are on offense.
3. Contain Irving
Evan Turner did a great job slowing down Kyrie Irving with his size, which was a good decision by Stevens to start Game 3 with. Now that it looks like Jae Crowder will start Game 4, the two wing players have to duplicate the defense on the all-star guard and not allow him go off from behind the arc and limit him getting into the paint as well. For that matter both Turner and Crowder will likely take turns playing LeBron one-on-one, with the latter being Crowder with the majority of the responsibility to contain the former MVP. Either way more aggressive D early on should set the tone. Would not be surprised to see Gerald 'Crash' Wallace make an appearance strictly for defensive purposes.
4. Bass, Bradley and Thomas have to show up
Being that this is Game 4, it's a win or go home type of mentality that we'll see on Sunday afternoon and Stevens is going to need all-hands on deck in every sense of the term. Aside from Game 3 (5 points in 21 minutes), Isaiah Thomas still leads the team in points scored at 16.3 per game in this series. But Avery Bradley has been a non-factor offensively through the first three-games (11 ppg), despite his 18 that he scored on Thursday night, he took 18 shots to get there. Keep in mind the fabulous J.R. Smith has been assigned to guard Bradley, so now is a great time to snap out of his funk and prove that he's the starting shooting guard for years to come. Brandon Bass is averaging a mere 5.3 ppg so far, and for a race horse that he's been all season and then some, the big man is not putting a good case when it matters most for a raise come free-agency. Besides Game 1 (10 points), Bass has become irrelevant in the offense as a starting power-forward going only 2-of-3 in Game 3, while benched in the second half (Jonas Jerebko started the third quarter).
Despite the Celtics' bench outscoring the Cavs' 37-16, and considering the final score (103-95) in Game 3, Boston could have used any of the aforementioned to at least have a decent offensive night on Thursday. Bass, Bradley and Thomas combined for 27 points on 30 shot attempts. Now with the announcement of Crowder inserted into the starting lineup, the C's bench needs Thomas to have his usual 20-plus points performance, and more production from starters Bass and Bradley to have a better chance at a victory. All three must find a way to get involved in the offense to outsmart Cleveland to a win so that the defense is not solely focused on one player.
In three loses the Celtics are averaging a margin of 9.6 points per game. Tighten up any of these four-factors will pay dividends down the stretch. The C's can not let any Cleveland lead get into double-digits because of the simple fact it's been exhausting trying to play catch-up for three-straight games, no matter what any basketball player tells you.
Sure it's been great watching Brad Stevens take these guys into the postseason, but I don't think being swept was what he had in mind. Come 1:00 PM EST, the Celtics should be ready and the Garden faithful will be the sixth man for Game 4, since it is ' do or die.'
(Pump C's fans sound effect here)
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