RICHFIELD, Ohio -- Understand, oh Boston Celtic fan, that with three or four strategically placed defensive rebounds last Friday night in Game 3, the Cleveland Cavaliers would already have wrapped up this series.
Face it: The Celtics can't stop Cleveland from scoring. In the last three games, the Cavaliers have shot 57 percent, 54 percent and 56 percent from the field. Go back to Game 2 and we can throw in a 52 percent. The Celtics had built themselves a nice little reputation as a defensive team, but now that we're in the playoffs, Cleveland is embarrassing them with coldly efficient offense.
"I would say we've backed down with our aggressiveness on defense," Chris Ford admitted after last night's 114-98 trashing. "You have to eliminate the little things, or else you have problems."
By "eliminating the little things," Ford was not referring to a hit-man contract on point guard Mark Price, although that would be an eminently sensible idea. "There is no question he makes them a great team," said Larry Bird, who, for what it's worth, didn't look bad at all during a 20-minute outing. "He takes a lot of pressure off their inside people when you pack it in, and he's great on that pick-and-roll."
If Price were Boston's only offensive concern, life would be idyllic. But he's not. As the point guard, Price selected from a delightful smorgasbord that included post-ups from Brad Daugherty (28 points, 10-for-13); jumpers and drives from Larry Nance (a somewhat subdued 18); jumpers, drives, offensive rebounds and hellacious fastbreak finishes from Hot Rod Williams (18); his own assortment of drives and pull-up jumpers; and, finally, Wednesday's Special, a killing 20-point Craig Ehlo entree.
Ford insists the Celtics can defend the Cavs, citing the success in Game 2 as evidence. He prefers to regard the three-game, 56 percent Cavaliers shooting as the product of Boston concentration and execution problems, rather than as irrefutable evidence of Cleveland's physical superiority.
"I think we have a sound game plan," Ford said. "You look at the film, and when we execute the way we talk about it and work on it in practice, you can see it happening the right way before your eyes. We've just got to stay focused. You can't ask our guys to play perfect basketball, but I know we can do a lot better than we've been doing."
Maybe, maybe not. The Cavaliers have been breaking down the Celtics at every position. For starters, they own the point guard matchup, at least when it's Price vs. John Bagley. Bags had no trouble dealing with Indiana's Micheal Williams, who was younger and quicker, but he simply cannot cope with Price, who goes wherever he wants whenever he wants when Bags is on him.
Aside from Game 2, they have dominated the pivot play. Daugherty conducted a clinic at the expense of Robert Parish last night, and it's not the first time. He has gone over 20 points in every one of the five games, and no other player can make that statement. Moreover, he has played intelligent defense, rebounded adequately (with the exception of the aforementioned Game 2) and continues to demonstrate why many people consider him the finest passing center in the game.
The forwards? Nance and Hot Rod obviously feel they can beat anyone guarding them off the dribble. When given too much room, they can bury jumpers. When doubled, each will make the requisite extra pass.
Throw in Ehlo's sudden renaissance (8-for-9 and a career-high 13 assists), and what can the Celtics do about it?
Says Ford: Execute.
"Take the pick-and-roll," Ford began. "One time, the point guard doesn't do his assignment. The next time, the big man doesn't do his assignment. The next time, the weak-side man doesn't do his assignment. We can all do better."
Big-time, big-city, successful playoff offense is the product of adjustment and counter plays. There are several inherently talented teams in this league who can be beaten because if you take away their first option, they go into their Ralph Kramden hummina-hummina routine. You take away the Cavaliers' first option and the little team computer automatically punches up the best alternate option.
The Cavaliers are a poised, mature, downright dangerous offensive team. It is no accident their least efficient offensive game was Game 1, which, despite shooting a series-low 47 percent, they still won by 25 points. They looked at the film, made the necessary adjustments and came back in Game 2 with the 52 percent performance. And they keep getting better.
"We're concentrating on our spacing," said Price, "especially as much as they're double-teaming Brad. We've worked hard in practice on looking to the weak side for our offense. We've also got good passers and pretty unselfish players."
"I had respect for them coming into the series," said Ford, "and now I have even more. They're playing well. They're moving the ball well. They're exploiting our weaknesses -- much like we do when we're playing well. We are both tough to beat when we're playing our game. Right now they've done it three times, and we've done it twice."
Bird is certainly a man who knows quality offense when he sees it, and he realizes he is looking at a Cleveland team in full maturity.
"They've always been a good shooting team," he said, "but now they are swinging the ball [to the weak side] much better. They are keeping us off-balance. I think if we make a few adjustments, maybe we can stop them."
Note the key word. Maybe.