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In the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ starting backcourt didn’t just take a back seat to their Boston counterparts, they were being dragged in tow, bouncing along the ground.
How badly did Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown of Boston outplay George Hill and J.R. Smith in Games 1 and 2?
Try outscoring them, 31-9 in Game 1 and a staggering 41-3 in Game 2.
That all changed in Game 3 on Saturday night, as Hill came charging out of the starting blocks, scoring 11 points, making 3-of-3 from the 3-point line and adding two assists, setting the tone as the Cavaliers jumped to a 32-17 lead after the first 12 minutes and paving the way for a 116-86 Cleveland triumph.
While Hill scored only two more points the rest of the way, finishing with 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in 30 minutes, Smith picked him up, with 11 points and five boards, including a 3-of-4 effort from deep.
Hill and Smith outscored Rozier and Brown, 24-23, allowing the rest of the Cavaliers to outpoint the rest of the Celtics, 92-63.
With Hill getting back to the way he played in the final 19 minutes of Game 7 in the first round against Indiana and against Toronto in the second round, Cleveland decimated the Boston defense, the best in the NBA.
“He’s been in the league for a while and he understands — he’s a vet,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Just playing with more force, more pace, more speed. He did that early on in the game. We need that from him, to be aggressive, attacking the basket, taking his open shots. He did that for us tonight.”
When Hill is able to take some of the ballhandling duties from LeBron James, good things usually happen for the Cavaliers. It results in James being able to move off the ball and in Hill and Kevin Love running sideline pick-and-rolls.
“When he’s coming in off the pick-and-rolls and in transition early, especially in the first quarter to get himself going, I think it just loosens everything up and it takes pressure off LeBron being the point guard to make plays.” Tristan Thompson said. “When G-Hill’s attacking early and being aggressive and just being himself, we know we’re a way better team.”
For his part, Hill, a 32-year-old veteran of the playoff wars, chose to point to the way the Cavaliers played as a whole instead of himself.
“I think if we play with that same intensity night in and night out, we’re a tough team to beat,” he said.
After scoring a combined eight points in the first two games of the series, taking only eight shots total, Hill’s 13 points on 11 shot attempts, his most in these playoffs, set the tone.
Lue clearly made an effort to get his point guard to take charge from the jump and it worked to perfection.
Hill’s usage rate in Games 1 and 2 was 6.9 percent. On Saturday night, it was 19.1 percent, initiated with running a pick-and-roll with Love on Cleveland’s first possession.
His performance did not come as a surprise to Boston coach Brad Stevens.
“I’ve watched George Hill since he was 15 years old in Indianapolis,” Stevens said. “(I was) not surprised at all.”
As for Smith, the first two games of this series were a nightmare, scoring a combined four points on 2-of-16 shooting, including missing all seven 3-point attempts, and picked up a Flagrant 1 foul in Game 2 on Boston’s Al Horford.
Saturday night, Smith’s 11 points included a 3-of-4 performance from deep.
“About time,” Smith said. “Just trying to stay confident as much as I can without being cocky, and just stay grounded and keep working. Obviously, shots are not going to fall every time, but just shoot the ball.
“Shoot the ball, don’t put too much emphasis on trying to penetrate and do all of that stuff, just when I get my shots I’ve got to shoot them. If not, then move the ball.”
Meanwhile, Rozier and Brown were clearly outplayed.
“I feel like we needed this to get us ready for Monday (Game 4),” Rozier, who had 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, said. “We needed to get our butts whipped to come back to reality. No disappointment at all, all the credit goes to them.”
Brown, being dogged by James, was never a factor after picking up two quick fouls, finishing with 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting.
“We know Jaylen’s a first quarter player,” Lue said. “I thought Bron did a good job cutting him off and slowing him down.”
“I just don’t think they were letting me catch the ball,” he said. “They were denying me. They didn’t want me to get the ball and when I did get it, it wasn’t in the position I was comfortable in.
“We can’t make excuses for it. We lost. Give credit to Cleveland. They did what they wanted to.”