Numbers and Notes from Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals
Talk about home cooking. The Cleveland Cavaliers bounced back for wins in Games 3 & 4 after two crushing losses at the hands of the Boston Celtics in Games 1 & 2. The role players for Cleveland did what they were supposed to at home; coupled with LeBron’s usual dominance, Boston lost 116-86 and 111-102 in Games 3 and 4 respectively. Both Cleveland and Boston looked like completely different teams after the series shifted to Cleveland, so what follows are some numbers to explain just why that was the case.
Perhaps the easiest thing to spot with the naked eye was the success that both Cleveland and Boston had shooting the three-ball, a vital component to both teams’ offenses. The chart below tracks the success each team had shooting over the course of the series so far.
It is a pretty basic chart, but the lines show just how much each team relies on its outside shooting, as the team with the better shooting percentage won each game (with the exception being Game 2, where Boston and Cleveland had an equal percentage). Both the Cavaliers and Celtics have multiple role players whose game is predicated on the three-ball (i.e. Terry Rozier for Boston, Kyle Korver for Cleveland), so it will be interesting to see if the trend of the home team shooting better will continue in this series, especially considering role players perform better at home. Watch out to see who comes out firing with more consistency in Game 5, as it may be an early indicator of who will win the game.
Not only did Cleveland step up its defense on the perimeter, but the interior defense was also much improved. Boston took more contested looks inside, and a swarming Cleveland defense resulted in Boston being much less successful in the paint, an area they dominated in Games 1 & 2. Keven Love, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., and even Korver (three blocks in Game 4!) helped LeBron lock down the paint when the series was in Cleveland. The graph below tracks the Celtics’ scoring in the paint over the course of the series.
The chart shows the relationship between Boston’s paint points and their final total score. Trend lines (exponential regressions in this case) were added to further illustrate the effect that Cleveland’s interior defense had on Boston’s ability to score. As Cleveland ratcheted up its defense inside, Boston was less successful offensively. This tells us that not only was Boston so successful in Games 1 & 2 because of their outside shooting, but they also had repeated easy looks inside to supplement the outside attack. By limiting easy looks in the paint over the past two games, Cleveland made life a lot more difficult for a Boston team without a go-to scorer.
The Eastern Conference Finals is tied up 2-2 now, so it now becomes a best of three. It is hard to pick against LeBron in this case, yet it is just as hard to pick against Boston at home. Through four games though, it simply seems like Cleveland has the better team *when they decide to put forth the effort*. Boston is too smart and crafty for anything other than a sterling effort, as coach Brad Stevens has coached the Celtics up to take advantage of any holes the defense presents. The thing is, it seems like most of those holes can be plugged up if Cleveland stays engaged and communicates on defense.
Game 5 will be Cleveland’s momentum versus Boston’s home court. The series appears to be Cleveland’s if they can maintain what they have done over the past two games, but Boston is still young, scrappy and well-coached, so don’t be surprised if they flip the script in Game 5. It’s hard to imagine Boston winning Game 6 in Cleveland regardless of what happens in Game 5, so despite how things seemed after the first two games, the pressure is now on Boston. Not matter what happens though, one thing is for sure: the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals are going to be fun.