Tomase: This is only way Celtics can play if they expect to beat Cavaliers

John Tomase
May 21, 2018 - 10:59 am
Jaylen Brown and Kevin Love

Aaron Doster/USA Today Sports

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Brad Stevens talks about connectivity more than your local ISP. When his Celtics play with it, they generally win. When they don't, you get debacles like Saturday's 30-point shellacking at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

After that Game 3 loss, Stevens praised the Cavaliers nearly half a dozen times for being the more connected team. But what exactly does he mean?

"Five guys playing as one," Stevens said after Sunday's shootaround. "You can see it. You can probably stat it somehow, but you can feel it. You can see it. You know what's happening right in front of you. We did not do that last night. They did it at a high level."

The Celtics played with the connectivity of an old 4800 baud dial-up modem on Saturday, replete with bleeps, bloops, and white noise static. They allowed 16 dunks and layups, most of them uncontested, an impossibly high total for a team that led the league in defense and prides itself on challenging everything. The breakdowns were shocking, to say the least.

"It was surprising for sure," said Jaylen Brown on Sunday. "We can't look in the past and dwell on the (expletive) we did last night. We still believe we can win this series."

Offensively, the Celtics abandoned ball movement in favor of contested midrange jumpers. Al Horford, their rock this postseason, took just four shots, none in the first quarter. If you're Stevens, the last thing you want to see is Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris pulling up from 18 feet without even attempting to start the offense, and there was a steady diet of that on Saturday.

The lack of offensive connectedness became glaringly apparent in the second quarter when one of their few examples of tic-tac-toe passing worked the ball to Aron Baynes inside. As two Cavaliers converged on him at the rim, he laid the ball down for Guerschon Yabusele on the baseline, but Yabusele cut half-heartedly and the pass sailed out of bounds.

A red-hot Baynes lambasted the rookie all the way down the floor and needed to be calmed by Morris.

"I just think that we were a little out of sync," Horford said. "I think that (Monday) we'll be better in making sure that we have better ball movement.  I'm not worried about that."

Playing connectedly matters more to the Celtics than just about anyone else because they don't have stars to rely on when things break down. The Cavaliers can clear for LeBron James on every possession of crunch time. The Celtics lack that luxury.

They need five guys moving as one, communicating as one, thinking as one. Inevitably, their opponents will suffer a weak link, one or two players who go off script and fail to make the extra pass, sink open shots, or rotate defensively. Think Eric Bledsoe in round one and Robert Covington in the conference semis, to name two. The Celtics exploit that area where their opponents lack cohesion.

It only works if it's all five guys, though. It's the only way it can work. The Celtics are down to seven players, none of whom is named Kyrie Irving. If they don't stay connected, they'll be heading their separate ways for the summer sooner than we'd hoped.

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