Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM

Monday's Playoff Essentials

Editor's Note: NBA Guarantee and Totals leader Antony Dinero has connected on eight of his last 10 picks ATS and is on a 25-12 run on guaranteed winners, hitting five straight to extend a 93-50-3 (64.9%, +3798) run on pay-only-if-you-win plays. He is 134-109-3 (55.1%, +1593) on over/under plays since Jan. 1. Don't miss out on more winners from him this basketball season on Click to win!

Eastern Conference Finals - Game 4 - Celtics lead 2-1
Boston at Cleveland (-6.5, 207), ESPN, 8:35 ET

The NBA Finals are back to being perceived as the Golden State Warriors Invitational after Sunday night’s 41-point point demolition of the Rockets.

The defending champs won all four quarters, taking the third by 10 and the fourth by 20, forcing Houston to falter immediately after halftime and ultimately, to quit over the final 12 minutes.

Because Houston is the only team with the firepower to be favored against Golden State the rest of the way, likely in Game 5 if they find a way to make Tuesday’s contest competitive, it’s understandable that some are already eyeing the draft and free agency. After being quieted by the Rockets’ dominant Game 2 win, those who like to cry about Kevin Durant damaging the NBA’s competitive balance by signing in Oakland are already belting out depressing songs in between their tears.

The Eastern Conference champion doesn’t have a chance to beat Golden State four times out of seven. Houston is still dangerous since it potentially still has a pair of home games remaining but seems likely to run out of bullets. For those reasons, that makes Monday night’s Game 4 in Cleveland potentially the most compelling playoff game we’ll be able to witness from here until June.

If the Celtics pull off the upset at Quicken Loans Arena, Monday night's Game 4 might be the final time we ever see LeBron James in a Cavs uniform. If there's a Game 6 or 7, those will obviously carry more drama. The same can be said about a Game 5 if Cleveland holds serve and evens things up. The fact that we can only all guess how this one is going to know makes this incredibly interesting, especially after what went down on Saturday night.

The Celtics didn’t show up. Head coach Brad Stevens, who can never be more valuable than elite players despite how foolish some have been by openly wondering whether a coach can be more important than the talent on the floor in today’s NBA, had no magical elixir to dispense or ingenious strategy to turn to.

LeBron James got help. Five other Cavs scored in double-figures. Not only that, but most were engaged on defense. Stevens’ very capable hands were tied, which sets up a Game 4 where he’ll need his team to show up in the same manner that it managed to at home, stifling the supporting cast while lifting one another up.

It remains to be seen whether that’s even possible in Cleveland.

Prior to Game 3, Jaylen Brown responded to a question about his team’s struggles on the road this postseason with a wait-and-see approach. As in, you wait and see what we’re going to do to the Cavs in front of their fans. Brown then came out and got into foul trouble, picking up two before five minutes were off the clock. He ended up with five, never got in a rhythm and finished 3-for-8, snapping a run of three straight games where he’d scored at least 23 points.

Rookie Jayson Tatum led Boston with 18 points on Saturday night and made six of his 10 shot attempts. He hasn’t scored 20 yet in this series after setting a Celtics playoff record with 20 or more points in seven straight contests against the Bucks and 76ers.

Point guard Terry Rozier, who has filled in admirably for Kyrie Irving, becoming a cult hero in the process, isn’t the same killer on the road that he is at TD Garden. If a team is making a run and you need a pull-up 3-pointer, Rozier fearlessly steps up. That’s his game. At home, he averaged 22 points per game in the first two round and came up huge with 18 points in Game 2 against the Cavs after scoring just eight in the series opener. After shooting 28-for-55 at home from beyond the arc in the first two series, he shot just 2-for-11 in the wins against Cleveland and shot 0-for-3 in Game 3.

Tatum, Brown and Rozier have been Boston’s top three scorers all postseason, each averaging over 17 points per game. If they can’t get it going against the Cavs, nothing Stevens can do from a strategy standpoint will stop James from rallying to win a third series after his team dropped the first two games.

Although he’s 2-4 in this situation, he’s done it in the conference finals against the Pistons in ’07 and the ’16 Finals vs. Golden State. He’s rallied the troops past better and more experienced teams than the current Celtics.

Al Horford and Marcus Morris, the team’s most experienced veterans, each performed horribly in Game 3, finishing with the worst two plus/minus figures in Saturday’s 30-point loss. The Celtics were outscored by 28 points when Morris was on the floor. The self-proclaimed LeBron stopper didn’t mince words in stating that his defense was horrible and nowhere near where it needs to be the other night. Horford, who set the tone with a brilliant Game 1, attempted just four shots in Game 3, matching a season-low.

Marcus Smart, whose energy, defense and passing created one game-changing opportunity after another in Boston, shot 2-for-9, missing all four of his 3-point attempts.

No, Stevens can’t accomplish anything if all his resources perform below expectations on the road. Cleveland should be concerned with the fact that his team can’t possibly play as poorly as they managed to in Game 3. Collectively, they let one another down. The young Celtics are 1-5 on the road this postseason, suffering every loss by double-digits and barely claiming the wing they did damage.

If they play Game 3 with nothing to lose, they’ve got a fighting chance since the Cavs are under pressure to even the series. Boston is 37-0 all-time after taking a 2-0 advantage but is playing with house money since few expected them to win this series when it began.

The Celtics were underdogs in the series even after winning Game 1 and were barely a 2-to-1 choice upon claiming the second contest. Following Cleveland’s impressive rout, Westgate Vegas lists Boston at -120 to reach the NBA Finals and has the Cavs as even money to get it done. If you listened and got in before Game 3, you’re sitting pretty so long as they’re able to hold serve here.

Tyronn Lue’s team is a 2.5-point favorite for the first quarter and a is laying four in the first half. The total, 100, offers up my recommended free play for you in this column since I think we’ll see both teams settle in and play a higher-scoring first 24 minutes than expected.

James got the help he needed from everyone in Game 3, but the player who stepped up first and was the most vital contributor was point guard George Hill. Not only did he outperform Rozier, but he also made it a point to be more aggressive, finishing 4-for-11 after scoring just eight points and taking eight shots combined in the first two games.

Kyle Korver went 5-for-5, making all four of his attempts from 3-point range, while Jordan Clarkson started to get loose in garbage time and could be a key contributor if he can successfully build upon the momentum he gained in building confidence by finishing 3-for-7 on 3s.

Cleveland is 6-0 at home this postseason after suffering an upset in Game 1 of the playoffs against Indiana. The Cavs have notched blowout wins where everyone showed up and nail-biters were James saved them, so they’re not worried about style points here.

Consider that and the fact Boston can’t play any worse as you consider whether to lay 6.5 points, which is the same number oddsmakers put out there after the first two embarrassing Cavs losses. A lot of people were tripped up by all those points, trusting what they saw in Boston would continue in Northeast Ohio.

They failed to consider that the Celtics are one team at home and another when faced to generate their own momentum on the road. They can’t play worse, but will they perform significantly better? Stevens is a championship coach, but is the group he’s throwing out there a team worthy of the NBA Finals?

We’ve been treated exclusively to blowouts thus far in the conference finals. Boston has the potential to end that if it can gain its bearings early. It’s on James and a supporting cast that again looks capable to prevent that from happening. Another compelling matchup awaits. As stated above, we’re not likely to get many more of these, so appreciate it.

Totals-wise, the number is also similar to where it resided for Game 3. Garbage time was cruel to over bettors since just two points were scored over the final two-plus minutes, so we’ll see if the posted total can be surpassed for the first time. If it closes over 207, it will be the highest figure of the series.

Game 5 will be played Wednesday night in Boston.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

We may be compensated by the company links provided on this page. Read more