BOSTON –The idea of the Cavs going into a must-win Game 7 without Kevin Love, who's in the NBA concussion protocol and won't play Sunday night, should put the Celtics at a significant advantage, right?
One of the keys to Boston’s success has been the impact Al Horford makes offensively, particularly at home. Horford has been at his best as a scorer in this series when matched up against Love.
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In this series, Horford has scored 31 points on 61 possessions with Love as the primary defender, shooting 76.5 percent from the field (13-for-17) and 60 percent (3-for-5) from 3-point range in that matchup.
Horford will get a much heavier dose of LeBron James, Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr., who combined to do a really good job on him in Game 6 when Horford scored just six points on 2-for-8 shooting.
But again, Horford has been a very different (read: better) player offensively at the TD Garden than on the road, regardless of who he’s matched up against.
Another byproduct of no Love for Game 7 is the potential for Boston to play Aron Baynes more.
Love’s ability to stretch the floor from beyond the 3-point line made him a tough cover for Baynes, who does his best work defensively around the post.
Baynes should have better luck defending Tristan Thompson, who had a series-low six rebounds in Game 5 at TD Garden.
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Knowing Love won’t be out there, the Celtics have to brace themselves for a full 48 minutes of LeBron James, who had 46 points in 46 minutes in Game 6.
James will certainly look to be even more aggressive and impactful than we’ve seen in the first six games. And while he continues to score in bunches, the Celtics have done a slightly better job defensively against him at home than on the road.
At TD Garden, he’s averaging 27.7 points, 9.0 rebounds and 8.7 assists while shooting 47.8 percent from the field.
When he’s in the comfy confines of Quicken Loans Arena, James’ numbers improve to 39.0 points, along with 7.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists, while shooting 55.4 percent from the field.
The bottom line is clear: With or without Kevin Love in the lineup, the Celtics are going to be challenged by a Cleveland team on several fronts as Boston tries to do what hasn’t been done in nearly a decade – send LeBron James home for the summer without a trip to the NBA Finals.
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CLEVELAND – As expected, Brad Stevens will go with the same starting five he had in Boston’s Game 5 win in Boston, a lineup that included Aron Baynes in for Marcus Morris.
Prior to Games 4 and 5, Stevens had been coy about who would be in his starting lineup, leading some to believe he was doing it as a means of not revealing his initial strategy for that particular game.
Stevens is less concerned about who starts, but more about how his team collectively starts games which has been a major issue in this series on the road.
In Boston’s two previous games in Cleveland, the Celtics found themselves outscored by an average of 15.5 points per game.
Avoiding a major deficit early in the game will be among Boston’s chief goals tonight.
“I don’t think we can be down 20 again at the end of the first,” Stevens said. “I know that sounds very obvious. I got caught up in really going back and dissecting and analyzing Game 4 and blah-blah-blah, but don't be down 20 in the first quarter. Don't end the first quarter that way. Don't end the third quarter that way. There are moments in games where you have to manage and weather storms, and we did not do that here in either game early. I do think it's important.”
Which is in part why Baynes is with the first unit and not Morris.
One of the reasons Boston has struggled in the early going of games is the Cavs’ ability to establish control of the boards courtesy of Tristan Thompson who came into Game 5 averaging 9.3 rebounds per game.
But in Game 5 with Baynes starting, it allowed Boston to have a more competitive frontline with Baynes and 6-foot-10 Al Horford that factored in Boston winning the battle on the boards, 45-39.
The Baynes-Horford tandem limited Thompson to just six rebounds in Game 5, his lowest rebounding total in a game in this series.
Thompson came in averaging 3.3 offensive rebounds per game in this series, but in Game 5 the Cavs as a team only totaled 3 with Thompson grabbing just one of his own.
Stevens places a high value on every minute of every game, but he knows all too well that how the Celtics start will have a major impact on how this game ultimately ends.
“Every minute is important in these games,” Stevens said, “but ultimately we can't be as poor as we were in the first quarter of the last two here.”