BOSTON -- All season the Celtics have seemingly been digging basketball graves for themselves, only to rise up and bury their foes.
It worked in the regular season.
In the playoffs?
Not so much.
Those huge deficits early in games have been a big problem for Boston, to the point where it has to be among the chief concerns for the Celtics heading into a pivotal Game 5 matchup on Wednesday.
Cleveland’s 111-102 Game 4 win, which evened the series at two games apiece, was due in large part to the Celtics falling 19 points behind in the first half.
To get down big early provides plenty of time for a comeback, of course. But it also requires a significant amount of energy, effort and timely breaks. And on the road? Against a LeBron James-led team?
That’s not likely to happen.
“We just dug ourselves in a hole in the first half,” said Jaylen Brown. “We came back from 15 and I think the closest we got it to was maybe seven or six. We fought. We played a better game than last time.”
Brown, who had a team-high 25 points in the Game 4 loss, was referring to Boston’s 116-86 beatdown in Game 3.
Certainly disappointed they didn’t get one or both games in Cleveland, coach Brad Stevens anticipated this series would be filled with ups and downs for both teams.
“Anybody that didn’t think this was going to be tough . . . I mean, everything is tough,” Stevens said. “In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up off the mat and go after it again. That’s part of it. That’s what makes these guys on both sides special.”
Here are five takeaways from Boston’s 111-102 Game 4 loss.
FIRST QUARTER ROAD WOES
Game 4 was the latest example in the Celtics-get-off-to-bad-starts-on-the-road narrative. They scored just 18 points on 7-for-26 shooting (26.9 percent) in the first quarter, when they missed six of their seven 3-point attemots. Getting off to a better start will go far in Boston’s attempts at regaining the series lead on Wednesday.
He seems to have exorcised some basketball road demons with a 16-point, 11-assist, 0-turnover performance in Game 4. But Cleveland’s ability to get him switched out on guarding a bigger frontcourt player is a problem. The Celtics has to become more creative scheme-wise to avoid their smallest starter (Rozier) consistently being paired with players several inches taller and several pounds heavier. Part of the problem is Rozier who hasn’t been fighting through those screens as hard he is capable of. It may result in an extra foul or two for Rozier, but two games away from a trip to the NBA Finals? Whatever sacrifice is required, you make it.
While his numbers in the Eastern Conference Finals have been decent, Tatum hasn't had anything close to the impact against the Cavs that he had in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The biggest missing ingredient is his 3-point shooting. He's averaging 2.5 attempts from 3-point range in this series, but only took two attempts total in Games 3 and 4 -- and missed them both. The Cavs have done a better job defensively, but there are seemingly more possessions in which he’s passing up a good 3-point look to instead attack a team defense whose strength lies in ability to contest shots at the rim. Don’t be surprised to see Tatum freed up more for 3’s in Game 5.
The Celtics aren’t expected to win the rebounding fight, but they at least have to keep it closer than they did in Games 3 and 4. In Game 4, Cleveland was a plus-10 (47-37) on the boards, which heavily factored into their decisive 16-7 advantage in second-chance points. Closing this gap will pivotal to Boston’s chances at success on Wednesday.
There’s a lot of talk about Boston’s defense and how it needs to improve going forward. But the Celtics have to do a better job offensively as well; specifically, they need to create more open or lightly contested shot attempts. Cleveland has contested more than 75 percent of Boston’s shot attempts in each of the last two games, compared to contesting less than 70 percent in the first two. Figuring out how to free up more shooters has to be a priority for the Celtics heading into Game 5.