BOSTON – Eight years ago, LeBron James walked off the TD Garden floor a loser, a 61-win season ending in the conference semifinals, a seven-year run with the Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately over. As James exited the same arena Tuesday night on the losing end of a 107-94 Game 2 disaster, you couldn’t help but wonder if history was repeating itself.
In 2010, the Boston Celtics were fearsome, former champions headlined by Hall of Fame talent. These Celtics? They are fearless. Its star power in street clothes, Boston has built a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals with physicality, an elite defense and a balanced offensive attack.
“It’s simple,” Jaylen Brown said. “We don’t back down from anybody.”
Indeed. This was the game Cleveland was supposed to win, right? LeBron goes off, a couple of other guys chip in and order is restored. The Cavs go home with a split, overwhelm Boston at the Q, and the NBA gets Golden State-Cleveland IV.
It seemed that way in the first quarter, when James went wild, dumping 21 points on Boston. But something happened on Cleveland’s way to a blowout: The Cavs couldn’t pull away. Despite James’ brilliance, Cleveland led by just four after one. The Cavs extended the lead to 11 in the second quarter, only to see Boston weed-wack it down to seven at the half.
“I thought our guys did a really good job of weathering the early storm,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
They did, and the Celtics came out of the locker room punching, while the Cavs played like a team eager to get knocked out. A seven-point lead was erased midway through the third quarter, and five points by Marcus Smart in the final four minutes pushed Boston’s lead to eight — and it never trailed again.
“We’ve had our third-quarter woes all season,” James said. “Tonight was another example of that.”
What’s happened to Cleveland? Where is the bully that pounded Toronto into submission? For starters, the Celtics aren’t the Raptors. Boston is a souped-up version of Indiana: versatile, switch-happy, able to chase the Cavs’ shooters all over the floor. And the Celtics adapt. Coming out of halftime, it was fair to wonder if they would go big, with Tristan Thompson causing problems on the offensive glass. Instead, they stayed small. They made subtle adjustments. They moved Marcus Morris off James and onto Thompson. They gave Smart reps on Thompson, too. Knowing James likes to create mismatches off Thompson screens, the Celtics denied him the chance to do it.
And they got physical. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue accused the Celtics of “gooning the game up,” but Boston was simply playing harder. Morris — who seems to look for someone to mix it up with in each series — got into it with Tristan Thompson, and Smart made a beeline for J.R. Smith after Smith shoved an airborne Al Horford in the back, but those plays didn’t define this one. It was the rebounding (Boston edged the Cavs 46-45, the second straight game they have controlled the glass), the points in the paint (50-42, Boston), and the scrappiness the Celtics exhibited every possession.
Want a compelling comment? The Cavs are three-time Eastern Conference champions, former NBA champions, with decades of playoff experience among them. And after the game, Kevin Love said the Celtics were a team Cleveland could learn from.
“I think you can actually take a lot from the Boston Celtics,” Love said. “They had all their starters in double figures, and that comes a lot, I think, with not only Stevens putting them in the right position but their level of activity. They move the ball, they continue to cut. [Smart] was a plus-21 in this game. He just seems to do everything out there on the floor. I think we can definitely learn from them, and we have guys that are very capable, too, so we just need them to be themselves.”
Added Thompson, “They move around and get a lot of action. They are a very well-coached team. They force us on the defensive end to have a lot of efforts. If you fall asleep or don’t do the right coverages, they try to expose that.”
Stevens cringes at the praise directed toward him. “It’s uncomfortable,” Stevens said. But these playoffs are a coming-out party for the 41-year-old coach. Down two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and a valuable role player in Daniel Theis, Stevens’ Celtics have ousted Milwaukee, suffocated the Sixers and are two wins from ending James’ season. Jaylen Brown (23 points) is playing like an All-Star, Terry Rozier (18 points) continues to ably fill Irving’s sneakers, and Smart is a defensive weapon Stevens can deploy all over the floor. Strategizing aside, Stevens has instilled a confidence in his band of 20-somethings that not only do they belong on this stage — but they should believe they can win.
“Brad and this coaching staff always talk to us about being locked in and in the moment, and those are big things for us,” Smart said. “So we’re just trying to stay locked in and focus on each other and really decrease the outside noise and distractions.”
Two wins down, and now one of the NBA’s most improbable Finals contenders ever heads to Cleveland to try and get two more. “We’ve got to be tougher,” Lue said, and the Cavs may need even more. Boston took James’ best shot on Tuesday, absorbing a 42-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound effort, and kept coming. Eight years ago, names like Garnett, Pierce and Allen ended James’ season and sent him looking for greener pastures. If things don’t turn for Cleveland, the likes of Horford, Brown and Rozier could do the same.
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