CLEVELAND, Ohio — That’s what it’s supposed to look like when the top two teams in the Eastern Conference play.
In a game that featured 24 lead changes and 19 ties, LeBron James’ seventh triple-double wasn’t enough to push the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Boston Celtics for the third time this season.
And while it’s not the ideal start to March, a grueling month that features 12 games on the road, the Cavs had no reason to be distraught about their performance, they had no reason to think the Celtics will be anything but an East stepping-stone en route to another Finals trip.
Here are five observations:
Finishing lineup — While he participated in one abbreviated practice and then his first shootaround Wednesday morning, it didn’t take long for Deron Williams to get his feet wet.
Williams entered at the 3:51 mark of the first quarter, replacing Kyrie Irving, who picked up two early fouls. Then unsurprisingly, Williams played with the start-of-the-second-quarter group, running the offense and moving James off the ball.
That’s Williams’ expected role. But him being part of Cleveland’s closing lineup wasn’t anticipated. Neither was his minute-load.
Head coach Tyronn Lue clearly wanted another ball handler late in the game, especially with the Celtics boasting numerous feisty perimeter defenders. Having Williams, who played 24 minutes, alongside Irving and James took some of the offensive burden away.
It was a smart decision. Lue understands that Williams needs experience in those situations. Iman Shumpert, who played eight seconds in the fourth quarter, has been part of those moments, a key member of the postseason runs. Same with Richard Jefferson and others.
Williams hasn’t. Not with this team. And Lue needs to find out about him during those pressure-packed moments, against a team the Cavs could see again in the future, maybe even the conference finals. Let him experience it.
Can Lue use Williams in the closing group? Does this new lineup have staying power? Which players fit best alongside the new point guard?
The Cavs don’t practice much. Game action will be the best opportunity to get these answers before the playoffs.
For the champs, it’s all about the process. That’s why the regular season is about experimentation.
Where’d it go? — The smaller Bucks starting group forced Lue to swap Richard Jefferson for Channing Frye, which altered the usual rotation, and kept Lue from using the “death lineup.”
But Wednesday should’ve been back to normal. The second quarter usually starts with James, Jefferson, Frye, Kyle Korver and Derrick Williams. The five-man lineup is plus-28 in five games.
Deron Williams altered that.
Putting Williams in that spot, wanting him to run the offense, makes sense. It’s what many envisioned when he was signed, but doing it at the expense of what has become one of Cleveland’s most productive lineups is dangerous.
It will take time for Lue to figure it out. But there’s no reason for the super sized lineup to vanish completely. It might be the lone downside to finally having a legitimate backup point guard.
No Kyrie/LeBron — Lue has said it since the beginning of the season: He wants to keep at least one member of the Big Three on the court at all times.
Wednesday provided a window into why.
Without any other choice — James resting to be ready for the fourth quarter, Kevin Love sidelined with a knee injury and Irving saddled with foul trouble — Lue went 2:53 without any of them. And it was wretched.
Cleveland scored one point on 0-of-6 from the field. Mixed in were a few ill-advised Williams shots and a rare Tristan Thompson post-up that eventually ended with a shot-clock violation.
The only point came at the free-throw line, as Thompson split a pair following an offensive rebound.
The good news: Boston was almost as bad, only scoring three points and not creating what should have been more distance during that stretch.
Celtics’ changing offense — Early in the game, the Celtics frequently launched from 3-point range.
They tallied 20 points on 7-of-25 from the field, including 1-of-9 from deep.
But then they adjusted, making sure to get the ball inside. Using a few Marcus Smart post-ups and drives, along with Kelly Olynyk touches, Boston scored 22 points in the paint on 11-of-12 on those opportunities in the second period.
That inside success eventually led to what happened in the second half, with the Cavs collapsing on drives and being vulnerable to the outside shot.
The Celtics only scored 12 points in the paint in the second half, as the Cavs did a much better job protecting the rim — even using James at center for a brief stretch. But Boston did its damage from beyond the arc, going 11-of-18 in the second half, including 6-of-8 in the fourth quarter.
Almost hero — Could there be a better debut than hitting a clutch jumper on the road against the No. 2 team?
That’s almost what happened. Only Williams’ dagger triple from the left corner spun out.
Deron Williams had a chance to be the hero in his Cavs debut… pic.twitter.com/WsiE0DtMmK
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 2, 2017
With the Cavs trailing by one, that triple would’ve given them a two-point edge, putting the pressure back on the Celtics.
Noteworthy: Williams is 4-of-11 on left corner 3’s this year.
In a way, that shot kind of encapsulated his debut. There were promising moments, seeing why Williams has the potential to be a weapon.
He allows James to play closer to the basket, work more at the elbow and become more of a finisher and cutter, as the four-time MVP had a handful of thunderous dunks to go with 13 rebounds. Williams also made some snazzy pocket passes on the pick-and-roll. And there were a few moments where he showed the ability to create his own shot.
But then there was the other side.
Williams got beat off the dribble a few times and committed a silly foul trying to defend Isaiah Thomas with 28 seconds remaining. Thomas made both free throws to give Boston a two-point lead.
Perhaps it was heavy legs, stemming from Williams playing 24 minutes in his first game action in about two weeks, but the veteran point guard also took a few questionable shots, finishing 2-of-8 from the field and 0-of-2 from beyond the arc.
He will get more comfortable. He will start to learn the offense. He will be an asset. But his first showing was a mixed bag.