CLEVELAND — The Celtics won't have a chance to win even a game in this series if they allow the Cavaliers to drain 13 3-pointers, grab 15 offensive rebounds, and yield a combined 50 points to Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.
At one point on Sunday, the Cavaliers were trailing by 8 points. And a few minutes later were leading by 8 at halftime. They are that good.
Yet the Celtics walked away from Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Cavaliers feeling they could have done more following a 113-100 loss at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavaliers won, but weren't dominant. James was good, but not great. And the Celtics were solid, but not impressive.
Boston played with poise at times, but committed 13 turnovers in the final three quarters that led to 17 points. The Cavaliers added 18 second-chance points as the Celtics often didn't bother to compete for defensive rebounds in the first three quarters.
The Celtics left points on the floor. They missed a plethora of open shots. They weren't helped by a combined 7-of-22 shooting from Evan Turner and Avery Bradley, while the rest of the team shot 52.6 percent.
A few things we found out from Sunday's game:
1. The Celtics are probably better than the national audience expected;
2. They proved capable of hanging with the Cavaliers and perhaps winning more than one game in this series;
3. It's going to be difficult to contain both James and Irving.
James, Irving, and Kevin Love combined for 69 points and 21 rebounds, but Celtics coach Brad Stevens did not see that as a major issue. He wasn't alarmed by Irving's "Superman" shots, or LeBron being LeBron, or Love hitting a couple of open 3-pointers. Stevens was more concerned with the Celtics' defensive effort and having the wrong approach from the opening tip.
The Celtics played well enough to compete but not win, and Sunday's result offered encouragement. They weren't blown off the floor by Freight Train LeBron and his cohorts. They cut a 20-point deficit to 6 late in the third quarter, before James Jones came off the bench and scored 5 points in the final 1:18 of the period.
Despite this being the first playoff experience for a handful of the Celtics' young core players, they managed their nerves and weren't daunted by the atmosphere. Their issues were X's and O's.
Rebounding was a major problem. Cleveland outrebounded Boston, 46-34, and got at least six boards from five players. Turner was the lone Celtic with six or more, finishing with seven.
"[Rebounding is] one thing we didn't emphasize enough coming into this series, I felt like," swingman Jae Crowder said. "And now that we know what we have to do now, we have to take [Monday] to see what we can do better on the rotations and blocking out.
"They have holes in their defense and we have to expose them. They took away a few things from us, but we have to go to the second or third option, not just focusing on the first option. We committed 14 turnovers and we haven't had that in a while. I think we played well, but we shot ourselves in the foot too many times. We didn't respond to their runs."
The Celtics are facing a more talented team, but they have the coaching and the ability to adjust with a day off to make this a competitive series. This wasn't a case of the Cavaliers playing poorly but still managing to win, and the Celtics watching their best chance of stealing a game vanish.
The Cavaliers played well. They exerted their power in the paint. Irving was magnificent. James scored when he needed but was more of a facilitator. And Love had his moments. After playing the shorthanded Cavaliers twice in a week, the Celtics got a strong whiff of what they now must overcome, and there is time to at least improve on their Game 1 effort.
"We have to be better execution-wise," Turner said. "We have to make guys guard a little bit more, attack a little bit better."
Sunday was a meaningful lesson in what playoff basketball entails. You can't be the same team you were in the regular season, make the same mistakes. NBA coaches thrive when given ample to time to prepare for one opponent, and the Cavaliers were prepared.
They doubled Bradley and rushed his shots. James defended Turner and did not allow him to start the offense comfortably. On many occasions, Turner got rid of the ball to get James out of his face.
And the Cavaliers forced Isaiah Thomas into trying to complete drives against as many as three defenders, and did so without fouling. The Cavaliers didn't take the Celtics lightly, but there were several indications that Boston can at least extend this series and shift the pressure to the favored team.
"The best thing about this series is it's the best of seven, so we get a chance to play them on Tuesday," Bradley said. "We can watch film tomorrow and learn from our mistakes. That's what I'm going to do, make the game a lot easier on me. I don't feel like we were invested on either ends of the floor consistently, especially in the first half. We definitely can play better. We know that. I think they know that. We just have to go out there and prove it."