BOSTON — The Cleveland Cavaliers might be one win away from facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the third straight season, but Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said his team’s current opponent in the Celtics is enough of a handful.
“I don’t even think about them,” Lue said of the Warriors to a small group of traveling Cleveland beat writers following the Cavs’ Game 4 win Tuesday. “We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it’s a totally different thing.”
Wait, the Isaiah Thomas-less 53-win Celtics are harder to defend than the Kevin Durant-supercharged 67-win Warriors? Come again, Coach?
“Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s—,” Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens’ schemes. “I’ll be like, ‘F—.’ They’re running all kinds of s—, man. And Brad’s got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It’s tough, you know, it’s tough.”
Despite the challenge, the Cavs lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-1 and can close out the series with a Game 5 win at TD Garden on Thursday.
On the surface, Lue’s claim sounds ridiculous, what with the Warriors trotting out two former MVPs in Durant and Stephen Curry, alongside the likes of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Meanwhile, the Celtics’ leading scorer after the injured Thomas, Avery Bradley, is averaging just 16.4 points this postseason.
Furthermore, Golden State leads all playoff teams in points per game (118.3), field goal percentage (50.2) and assists per game (27.8), and it is second in offensive efficiency (115.8 points per 100 possessions). While the Celtics are eighth in points (105.4), sixth in field goal percentage (45.8), second in assists (27.4) and fifth in efficiency (109.0).
Yet, Lue said that the Celtics’ unpredictability — born out of necessity, with Thomas’ shutting down his season at halftime of Game 2 because of a hip injury — has made things difficult after the coach had to scrap his defensive orders all catered toward limiting Thomas.
“With Isaiah going down, that’s 29 points a game, and now you got to scheme and try to do something for a whole ‘nother system,” Lue said of Thomas, who actually was averaging 23.3 points in these playoffs. “It’s tough. And we really didn’t know what to expect. But I thought we did a good job of making some adjustments in the end of the second quarter and the third quarter and the second half [in Game 4] that really helped us out.”
Indeed, the Cavs — after giving up a combined 118 points to the Celtics in the second half of Game 3 and the first half of Game 4 — hunkered down after the break Tuesday, holding Boston to only 42 points on 41.1 percent shooting in the second half.
With the Celtics suddenly challenging the Cavs after Cleveland won Games 1 and 2 by a combined 57 points, Lue was asked if Boston might be better without Thomas, its All-Star and face of the franchise.
“I don’t know,” Lue said. “Somebody just asked me that. I wouldn’t say so, because at moments like this, when they needed a basket or a bucket, who do you really go to on a consistent basis? That’s where he’s big for this team. And of course, all the movement and stuff is good, but then there comes a time where, ‘OK, we need a basket. So who do we go to get that?’ And that’s where he’s been so big for them and so crucial this year.”