BOSTON -- Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, someone asked Al Horford if he was approaching this like a Game 7. No, Horford said, he’s approaching it like a Game 5. Then he went out and played a perfectly Horfordian game with 15 points and 12 rebounds that was befitting a crucial, but not must-win Game 5.
There was nothing pretty about those 15 points. Few things with Horford are, but this effort was especially grinding.
When the C’s needed a bucket they dumped it into Horford in the post and he slowly worked his way toward the basket. He took only nine shots, but he got to the free throw line six times and made all six. Jayson Tatum was sublime with 24 points on 15 shots, but this game demanded a grownup ... and that meant Horford.
The Celtics won Game 5 by a score of 96-83 and did so while shooting 36 percent from the field. They made 13 3’s and got to the foul line 23 times, while generating 15 second-chance points.
They also went scoreless for nine straight possessions in the fourth quarter. Horford got the C’s got out of their funk when he ran the floor for a dunk, and a few minutes later he buried a 3-pointer that settled matters.
The Cavs had got themselves back into this series by playing big and forcing the C’s out of their preferred pick-and-pop game with Horford orchestrating offense from the perimeter. After two games of getting bullied in the paint, Celtics coach Brad Stevens started Aron Baynes and matched size with size.
That’s the beauty of having Horford. He can finesse you from the outside or back you down in the paint. Either way, he’ll be in the right place at the right time on defense, which is really how they won this game.
Someone in the crowd was wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘Al Horford is Good’ and that may be the most accurate t-shirt in the history of t-shirts. Even better would be the Stevens line before the game: “He knows every action in the league that anybody would possibly run.”
That wouldn’t fit on a t-shirt, so ‘Al Horford is Good’ will have to suffice.
Just so we’re clear: Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen in Game 6. The Cavs don’t know from game to game what they’re going to get and the Celtics have no idea if their team will show up ready to play on the road.
This series has one been long dramatic dud. We’ve had five games of mostly non-competitive contests where the biggest storyline has been whether LeBron James is kind of tired, really tired, or not tired at all ... but just as sick of this series as everyone else.
James played 39 minutes and had 26 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. He also had six turnovers and stopped attacking the basket in the fourth quarter. Naturally, the assumption is that he’s tired.
“He looked a little tired to me,” Ty Lue said.
LeBron said he was fine, adding, “And I didn’t mention the fatigue, either. One of you guys did. I’m fine.”
Whether he’s tired or not, the Cavs can’t win if he’s not in supercharged LeBron mode. The Celtics are switching everything, but they’re not doubling because they don’t want to give up open 3’s on rotations. That’s the whole game right now, and it’s the same way they played Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in earlier rounds.
“The one thing we’re trying to do is we’re trying to keep our shell intact and make it as hard as possible,” Stevens said. “And with that comes some disadvantages, too, as have been talked about quite a bit. But I think the more that we can stay attached to everybody else and make it as tough as possible, the better.”
J.R, Smith, George Hill, and Tristan Thompson shot 2-for-14 and the Cavs were 9-for-34 from 3-point range. That’s the gameplan in a nutshell. LeBron might get 44 and screw it up, but he also might get 26 and look tired.
Lue said that his rotations got messed up regarding Kyle Korver because Semi Ojeleye didn’t play. That was good for a chuckle because the last time Ojeleye dictated a rotation decision he was playing at S.M.U.
Lue’s point was fair. Ojeleye is the guy they hide Korver on for defense and when Korver did get in the game, the C’s attacked him relentlessly. Still, Korver hit a couple of 3’s and was a net-zero in plus/minus, which was an awful lot better than J.R. Smith (minus-19) and George Hill (minus-21.)
Lue’s going to get roasted for that comment, but it’s worth remembering that he made a couple of nice adjustments in Games 3 and 4 that got the Cavs’ offense unlocked and made everyone question whether his counterpart was really a super-genius. Still, nobody should get thrown for a loop over Semi Ojeleye.
Jayson Tatum is 20 years old. He doesn’t play like a rookie, nor does he act like one, but he’s still just a very young man and when he calmly goes off for 24 points on 15 shots it’s hard to remember that he really shouldn’t be doing this at this stage.
“I just enjoy playing in the big moments, in the big games,” Tatum said. “I think that’s when I have the most fun, when things are on the line.”
That’s about as much as you’re going to get from Tatum, but everything else about him says that he’s a star in the making. The only thing holding him back has been an occasional lack of aggressiveness and a little extra strength, but when he gets going he gives the Celtics a dimension they haven’t had in the Stevens era.
This is the biggest difference between this year’s C’s and last year’s C’s: They have players that can create offense for themselves and take advantage of mismatches. It may be young talent, but it’s talent that’s unafraid of the moment.
Seriously, Game 6 is a box of mystery. Everything that was said about the first two games was nullified by the next two and nothing that happened in Game 5 is likely to carry over to Game 6.
The only thing that will salvage this series from an entertainment perspective is the spectacle of LeBron in a Game 7 in the Garden. Even that feels like setting ourselves up for disappointment in what has been an incredibly underwhelming series.