After the Boston Celtics stomped out his Cleveland Cavaliers to open the 2018 Eastern Conference finals on Sunday, LeBron James kept it cool, insisting he had “zero level of concern at this stage” with his team down a game in the best-of-seven set. He might not deign to admit it, but facing an 0-2 deficit after the Cavs got thoroughly outplayed down the stretch of a game in which he’d put up the third 40-point triple-double of his career? That probably ought to concern him just a smidge.
Coming off a disappointing start to the series, Brad Stevens’ Celtics expected to get a monster effort from James in Game 2. He obliged, scoring a game-high 42 points on 16-for-29 shooting with 12 assists, 10 rebounds and a block in 42 minutes of play …
… and it barely made a lick of difference.
Boston choked out the Cavs in the second half, limiting the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champs to 39 points on 39 shots after halftime before pulling away in the closing minutes for a 107-94 win. The Celtics have successfully defended home court, drawing within two wins of the NBA Finals and giving LeBron, coach Tyronn Lue and the rest of a disheveled-looking Cavs team an awful lot to think about in the extended three-day layoff before the series resumes in Cleveland with Game 3 on Saturday.
The last Eastern team to put LeBron in an 0-2 hole? They wore green, too. And they won it all.
Jaylen Brown continued his strong postseason, routinely attacking off the bounce when guarded by James and in the post when guarded by the likes of Kyle Korver on his way to a team-high 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in 35 minutes. He led six Celtics in double figures, all of whom made their presence felt at opportune times.
Jayson Tatum (11 points, three rebounds, two assists) and Marcus Morris (12 points, five rebounds, three assists) each hit big shots in the second quarter to help keep Boston within striking distance when the Cavs made an early push. Point guard Terry Rozier poured in 14 of his 18 points in a third quarter that saw Boston blow the game open, outscoring Cleveland 32-16 over the final 9:15 of the frame to seize control.
After a slow start, Al Horford took the game over late, finishing with 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks in 38 minutes; he scored or assisted on 10 of Boston’s last 12 points. And with or without a working jumper, Marcus Smart continued to disrupt Cavs possessions and earn Boston new ones on his way to 11 points, nine assists, five rebounds and four steals in 31 minutes of turnover-free basketball during which the Celtics outscored visiting Cleveland by a whopping 21 points — the highest plus-minus mark of the game, and one befitting the massive impact he makes with his defensive talent and unbridled tenacity.
Kevin Love did his level best to offer James support, scoring 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting with 15 rebounds and a pair of assists in 35 minutes. Ditto for Korver, who scored 11 points in the second quarter to help the Cavs withstand a brief breather for James early in a period during which the Cavs would briefly lead by as many as 11. But once again, Cleveland’s complementary pieces got outproduced and flat-out outworked by their Boston counterparts.
Rodney Hood gave Cleveland next to nothing in his 11 minutes off the bench. Jeff Green was worse than that, leveling his six points with five turnovers and shoddy defense on his way to a -17 in 28 minutes that felt exactly the way it looks in print. J.R. Smith had them both beat, missing all seven of his shots from the field, and routinely getting his lackadaisical defense roasted by Brown and Rozier.
Smith put a bow on it all late in the fourth, delivering a dirty two-hand shove to the back of an airborne Horford as he elevated for a lob in the lane, sending the All-Star center to the deck in a heap and earning himself a flagrant foul-1 that, frankly, probably should’ve been a mandatory-ejection-triggering flagrant-2:
It was a fitting end to an awful night for the rest of the Cavaliers, a piecemeal roster featuring holdovers from a title team and midstream additions who’ve yet to really make their mark on this postseason push. With them offering precious little, and Cleveland’s season-long aversion to defense continuing to rear its ugly head against a Celtics team that sticks and moves, the Cavs now find themselves behind the 8-ball in a way they haven’t in years.
As he’d hinted he would after a poor defensive outing in Game 1, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue elected to shake up his starting lineup. He sent Korver to the bench, calling on center Tristan Thompson to resume his years of unpleasantries with Horford while kicking Love down to power forward.
The Celtics didn’t super-size to meet them, though, holding firm in the belief that their lineup — Horford and Morris up front, Tatum and Brown on the wings, Rozier at the point — would continue to generate quality looks against a more conventional Cavs defense, and would still be able to match up against the beefier Thompson-Love-James frontline. (Thompson was fine, scoring eight points, grabbing seven rebounds and playing physical defense, but he wasn’t The Answer for what ails these Cavs.)
Also as expected: LeBron opened the game like freaking Godzilla.
After a couple of early turnovers trying to attack, James began to grab the game by the scruff of its neck, much as he did in Game 2 of the opening round against the Indiana Pacers after Cleveland dropped the first game of that series. He fired away from deep, spun into the lane for layups, and bailed out well-defended possessions with the sort of fadeaway bomb that buried the Raptors on his way to 21 points, tying the highest-scoring quarter of his postseason career, on 8-for-13 shooting with four 3-pointers.
(Here’s where we remind you that he scored 15 points on 16 shots in all of Game 1, and that Cleveland as a team made only four 3s in the first game of the series.)
Despite LeBron’s remarkable start, though, the Celtics hung tight. They trailed by just four after 12 minutes, 27-23, thanks in part to a stellar start by Brown (14 first-quarter points on seven shots) and in part to some still-spotty defense by a Cavaliers team more likely to overreact to a hard cut than to stay at home on a red-hot shooter:
With James taking his customary rest to start the second quarter, Lue needed somebody else in a Cavs uniform to step up and produce some points to keep the Celtics at bay while LeBron got a breather. Veteran sniper Korver answered the bell, finding just enough daylight off screens from big man Larry Nance Jr. to rise, fire and connect, pouring in 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting in seven minutes of floor time to keep Cleveland afloat.
After a chilly start to the game, rookie Tatum warmed up in a hurry to respond in kind. He muscled his way through traffic in the paint for a layup, drilled a step-back 3 in the left corner, and hit another step-back jumper on the left wing in quick succession, quickly turning a rocky opening into a nine-point quarter to keep Boston within a pair of possessions midway through the frame.
Cleveland regained some separation, though, with James acting as a facilitator to activate Love. LeBron fed his All-Star big man for a midrange jumper, and then hit him on a leak-out with a full-court outlet pass that we’ve much more frequently seen delivered the other way around …
… for a layup that put the Cavs up nine with just under 4 1/2 minutes to go in the half.
Just as quickly as things began to look up for Cleveland, though, they got scary in a hurry, when Tatum picked up his third foul by going for a steal along the baseline and inadvertently shoulder-blocking James in the head with 3:50 to go:
James stayed down for a few moments to collect himself, shot his free throws — he split a pair — and then the Cavs took a foul so that he check out of the game. He went straight back to the locker room, very slowly and very carefully, leading to concerns that he’d sustained a concussion and would have to enter the league’s concussion protocol.
Instead, though, he was back on the sideline a mere two minutes later, checking back in with what ESPN’s Doris Burke reported was a “neck strain.” He promptly went right back to work, attacking slow-footed Celtics big man Greg Monroe in the pick-and-roll and delivering a pinpoint pocket pass to hit a diving Thompson for a dunk that put Cleveland back up by 11.
With Boston in trouble late in the quarter and in need of something to turn the tide, there was only one man to whom Stevens could turn: his official chaos agent. And, of course, Smart delivered.
Three straight Smart-to-Morris buckets, the third created by a Smart steal as Cleveland tried to push the ball looking to set up its final possession, helped turn what could’ve been a 13-point deficit into a much more manageable seven-point hole, 55-48, at intermission.
After a nervy couple of minutes to open the court, Rozier — who’s been so brilliant for the Celtics since All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving went down a month before the start of the playoffs, but who’d had a quiet first half — finally got an easy bucket, working his way to a layup after taking a high screen from Horford. That opened the floodgates: Rozier would get hot in a hurry with seven straight points, knotting the game at 66 with six minutes to go.
Cleveland would go back on top on a LeBron triple, but Morris got those three points right back on the next trip, driving through Thompson all the way to the rim for an and-one layup. It tied the game at 69, and gave Morris occasion to unleash a primal scream that seemed to reverberate throughout the Garden:
With the spark lit, Smart fanned the flames, drilling an open 3 — the kind of 3 you give a career 29 percent 3-point shooter, and that hurts twice as much when it swishes — to give Boston its first lead since the score was 3-2. Rozier poured it on, pushing the ball in transition after a missed 3 by Smith and, knowing LeBron was in the rear-view mirror and the chasedown block was a possibility, hitting the gas anyway for a thunderous throwdown that put Boston in control:
The Celtics doubled Cleveland up over the final 9:15 of the quarter, turning a nine-point deficit into a seven-point lead over a Cavaliers team that seemed to start reeling the second James went to the locker room after his collision with Tatum.
With the Cavs down 84-77 entering the fourth, Lue chose to open the quarter with both LeBron and Love on the bench, rolling with a Nance-Green-Korver-Hood-George Hill lineup that seemed awfully dicey, given situation and score. Two empty possessions and Boston scores later, the deficit was 11. Neither coach nor players seemed to have a whole lot of answers left, as the Celtics — namely Smart — just kept fighting for and winning every small battle in the greater war:
There were still LeBron and Love, though, and that was enough to get Cleveland back within two possessions following a James jumper with just under five minutes to go. From there, though, Horford went to work, and Smith lost his mind, and the Celtics rebuilt a lead that the Cavs would never again threaten.
Through two conference finals games, the Cavs have been outhustled, outexecuted, outsmarted and roundly outperformed by a young, hungry, poised and very damn good Celtics team — one that doesn’t seem at all content with just putting up a good fight when they feel like they can deliver a knockout instead.
Boston just took a 40-point LeBron triple-double on the chin, walked through it, and won by 13. If the Cavs have a better haymaker in their arsenal than that, these next three days would seem like the right time to find it. If they don’t, they might not make it to the championship rounds, and for the first time in eight seasons, there could finally be someone new sitting on the Eastern Conference’s throne.