With all the attention that has been given to the improved individual performance of LeBron James as the Cavs have evened this series, the numbers that are even more significant are these: 42.6, 40.3, 40.5 and 38.6. These represent Boston's field goal percentages in the first four games of this series, and as Cleveland's offense continues to improve, these declining numbers are a huge concern for the Celtics going into Game 5.
While Cleveland's offense was horrific in Games 1 and 2 in Boston, the Cavs have played outstanding defense in every game of this series. Now that they have gotten their offense untracked in Games 3 and 4 (49 percent from the field and 44 percent on 3-pointers), they come into Game 5 a much different team -- hitting on all cylinders at both ends of the floor.
The Celtics were never in Game 3, and despite being in position to win in Game 4, they were abysmal on offense in the fourth quarter, scoring only 12 points. The greatest concern for the Celtics is this astounding fact -- in the last 10:13 of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter, Kevin Garnett did not score.
KG not only was missing in action offensively in the second half of a close and winnable game, but also was deferring to Rajon Rondo and P.J. Brown. He was passing up shots and running away from scoring opportunities. In our Game 4 preview, we said that we expected Garnett to play big and anticipated a much closer game in which he would try to take over in stretches. The close game happened, but Garnett's offense did not.
Coach Doc Rivers even went to a wide open 2-1-2 offensive set with Garnett in the middle setting a screen and then rolling down the middle -- much like Orlando does with Dwight Howard. However, rather than sealing his defender and calling for the ball in front of the rim, Garnett ran away to the other side of the floor. He missed two opportunities to pin Daniel Gibson under the rim as Anderson Varejao hedged on the ball.
Cleveland's defensive focus took away Garnett's post game in the second half; Ben Wallace stayed in good defensive position on Garnett's catches, and Varejao gave Garnett chest-to-chest denial on his post-up attempts. Both defenders kept KG out of the middle, forcing him to turn baseline and fade away.
However, on several key possessions, Garnett allowed himself to be taken out of the play by Varejao's aggressiveness. Boston must have Garnett demanding the ball in the second half; look for much more aggressive pursuit of the ball from KG in Game 5. Expect Cleveland's 4s and 5s to keep coming with aggressive denial and physical contesting of everything in the post. Garnett will step out to the wing and baseline to use his quickness to counter that physical presence.
The physical play and contesting of shots isn't limited to the post, however. Ray Allen is getting no easy looks, and even the shots he is making are hotly contested. He was much more effective in Game 4 running fades toward the corner rather than curling off screens into traffic. Boston is running some flair action followed by a single-screen or double-screen option to give Allen multiple opportunities for these looks on each possession.
Part of Allen's problem is that Boston is whiffing on the screens -- they are missing Allen's defender completely, which means Allen has a man in his face on the catch. This is as much Allen's fault as it is the screeners because he has not done a good job of changing speeds coming off the screen. By stopping, starting and keeping his defender off balance, Allen should have more room to square and shoot in Game 5. Expect the Cavs to try to be physical and try to bump Allen off his routes.
With all the attention focused on LeBron's offense, his defense on Paul Pierce has been outstanding. On three consecutive possessions to start the third quarter, Boston ran the same set for Pierce, bringing him across the lane from right to left off of a baseline screen to set him up in the midpost area. LeBron deflected the first pass attempt and forced a turnover, muscled Pierce off his cut on the second try, and jumped the screen and denied Pierce the pass on the third possession.
Look for Boston to run more action that gets Pierce the ball at the top of the floor, where he doesn't have to wrestle LeBron for position.
Even when Allen and Pierce can drive to the basket, the Cavs' big men are there to contest at the rim. This has both players settling for long jumpers, and backboard bricks by each on wide-open shots from the top of the key illustrated just how much Cleveland's defense has disrupted their games.
LeBron has made a key adjustment offensively that has helped the Cavs' offense get untracked. Rather than driving and getting surrounded at the rim, and then making a pass out of desperation as he did in Games 1 and 2, James is making his passes earlier in his drives just as the defense steps to him. This makes for a more accurate pass and allows his perimeter shooters to get into a better rhythm. With 21 assists in the past two games, James has made everyone on his team a scoring threat, and Celtics defenders are having to stay closer to home.
This was evident on James' final drive and dunk in Game 4, when he froze James Posey and Allen had to stay close to Delonte West in the corner, freeing a path to the rim for James' highlight dunk over Garnett. When LeBron comes hard off the ball screen with the intent of getting to the rim, now those defenders must commit, which will once again free up the shooters.
Don't expect James to be baited into another high-turnover performance in Game 5, and look for Boston to play him softer on the ball to entice him back into being a jump shooter.
Just as Cleveland did not need to overreact to trailing 2-0, the Celtics should not hit the panic button after losing twice in Cleveland. However, the Cavaliers know they will still play Game 6 at home, so they may have two chances to win in Boston. If the Celtics don't bring Game 7 urgency to Game 5, then Game 7 may never happen. Expect this to be the best game of the series, with Boston getting energy from the crowd and a better contribution from their bench.
PREDICTION: Celtics win Game 5
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.