The Cavaliers pounded the Celtics, 116-86, to avoid an 0-3 series deficit in Game 3 on Saturday, and much of the focus will be placed on Boston’s troubles on the road. But Cleveland won this game because they were able to jump out to a scorching hot start and take a double-digit lead into the first quarter. The Cavs weren’t able to do that in the first two games of this series, and proved that if they throw haymakers from the opening tip, they give themselves the best chance to win a game — or a series.
First quarters are a barometer for success for this Cavs team
In Game 1, LeBron scored five points in the first quarter. His teammates combined to score 13, and the Cavaliers were doubled up in the opening period, 36-18, and eventually lost by 25. In Game 2, James scored 21 first-quarter points on 8-of-13 shooting. His teammates, though, only scored six points in that period, and even though the Cavs built a four-point lead in the first, James’s 42-point performance wasn’t enough. Cleveland eventually lost by 13.
But in the first quarter of Game 3, the Cavaliers finally struck the right chord. LeBron scored 12 points, but an aggressive George Hill scored 11 on 3-of-6 shooting from three. The Cavs opened with a 20-4 run and jumped out to a 15-point lead entering the second quarter. They never looked back and absolutely pounded the Celtics by 30 to regain some momentum in this playoff series.
It’s not just this series, either.
When the Pacers ran up into Quicken Loans Arena and swiped Game 1 from beneath Cleveland’s feet, the result came as no surprise after Indy jumped out to a 33-12 first-quarter lead. And when the Cavaliers eventually escaped that first-round series in Game 7 — bruised and battered, but unbeaten — it was a 31-19 lead in the first quarter that gave them enough cushion to absorb a few Pacers runs before staving them off late in the fourth quarter.
This is what the Cavaliers have to do
Much like the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Cleveland has been plagued by slow starts and powered by hot ones. That’s the kind of energy the Cavaliers (and the Warriors) have to bring to the table from the opening tip. If they don’t, they can fall behind and be forced to play catch-up for the rest of the night.
The Cavaliers can’t afford to take any possessions off, let alone entire quarters. Against a scrappy, talented and well-coached team like these Celtics, Cleveland has to give its all from the jump. That’s why a a five-point or a 21-point opening quarter won’t necessarily work. It has to be a well-rounded attack led by Cleveland’s star.
Kevin Love only had two points in the first quarter of Game 3, but he snatched down five rebounds and was aggressive looking for his shot. So was J.R. Smith, who shot 1-of-4 in the first but finished 3-of-4 from three-point range, often looking to the sky as to say, “finally, I got one to drop.”
Of course there was James, who finished with 27 points and 12 assists. But those 12 dimes hit seven different targets, according to ESPN, helping six Cavs players in total score in double figures with another two finishing with eight and nine. Cleveland was free to move that ball around because they didn’t have the pressure of playing catch up early on.
The question at this point should be if this type of first-quarter success is something the Cavs can sustain throughout this series. But I was quickly reminded that sustainability and this Cavaliers team are equivalent to mixing oil and water. This is something the Cavaliers have to do. They can’t leave it to chance.