Road tripped: Celtics’ Game 3 loss another playoff pothole
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Celtics were loose, smiling and laughing. They weren’t straining to hear each other speak and there were no obnoxious Cleveland fans heckling them.
All was quiet as Boston worked out Sunday.
Practice isn’t an issue on the road in the postseason. Playing games is the problem.
Less than 24 hours after a 30-point bludgeoning at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics did some film study and critical evaluation.
They were hard on themselves.
“I thought it was embarrassing,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said of Boston’s 116-86 loss — and his own performance. “I thought we came out, the way I played, the way I performed, how not aggressive I was in the first half, I look at that as fuel to come out in Game 4 and be excited about it and be ready to play and ready to fight.”
Brown scored just 10 points — 13 below his average after two games in the series — and was in almost immediate foul trouble as the Cavs dominated while pulling within 2-1 in the series.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens may change his lineup for Monday’s Game 4, perhaps returning to center Aron Baynes and bringing Marcus Morris off the bench. Stevens has to do something to free up Al Horford, who has been held in check by Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson the past two games.
By starting Baynes, Stevens could force Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to make a counter move and either put Kevin Love — or even James — on Horford.
Stevens wouldn’t tip his hand. Beyond any lineup tweaks, more concerning for him may be his team’s Jekyll-and-Hyde postseason play.
The Celtics have been sensational at home, going 9-0. But the road has been treacherous as Boston is 1-5 in trips to Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Cleveland, with the only win in overtime against the 76ers.
The Celtics have a case of homesickness. They aren’t playing with the same intensity or confidence as they do when they’re under those dangling NBA championship banners and retired jersey numbers atop TD Garden.
Boston had one of the league’s best road records during the regular season, going 28-13 — only Houston and Golden State were better. But with several young players, including 20-year-old Jayson Tatum, the Celtics are learning that playing in front of hostile playoff crowds can be daunting.
“It’s very different,” said Horford, who took only four shots in Game 3. “I think that at home, you have your home crowd behind you. You have a comfort level about you. And on the road, literally it’s just you against everybody else. It takes a while for you to get used to and understand how well you have to play on the road. You have to be able to do all the little things in order to have a chance.
“Last night we had a lot of breakdowns, so we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to win.”
The good thing for Boston is that it doesn’t have to win a road game to make the Finals.
Cleveland does, but James has been down this path before. He’s twice rallied teams from 2-0 deficits.
The Cavs seized control from the opening tip in Game 3, bursting to a 20-4 lead and then clamping down defensively on the Celtics, who didn’t get the open looks they enjoyed in Games 1 and 2.
James, in particular, played like a man not about to let the Celtics block his path to an eighth straight Finals.
While he was typically amazing on offense, handing out 12 assists including three that required multiple replays to appreciate their artistic beauty, James was a defensive force as well.
“I thought last night was one of LeBron’s best games I’ve seen in a long time as far as helping, closing out to Jaylen Brown’s chest and making him put it on the floor,” Lue said. “Closing out to Morris. Closing out to (Marcus) Smart. He did a really good job of just setting the tone of multiple effort and that was good for us.”
And for a change, James had plenty of offensive help as Cleveland had six players in double figures. Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson had major contributions, giving the Cavs a taste of what could lie ahead.
The non-LeBrons, as they’ve been dubbed, came up big.
“We’re starting to figure out that LeBron doesn’t have to take 20-some shots to beat a great team by 30,” Nance said. “The rest of us are very good basketball players in our own right and it’s nice to show that.”
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