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Having made NBA history two years ago in becoming the first team to bounce back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win a championship, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not about to be frightened by dropping the first two games of a series.
However, after Boston won Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers as the series shifts to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, the Celtics have certainly demanded — and received — the Cavs’ full attention.
“We know what it takes,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, who guided the Cavaliers past defending champion Golden State to win the NBA title in 2016, said.
So, too, do the players, according to J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, two of only four players remaining on the roster from the 2016 title team.
The other two — LeBron James and Kevin Love — are doing their parts in this series.
James, coming off a 42-point, 10-rebound, 12-assist triple-double in Game 2 and is averaging 28.5 points in the first two games.
Love, who had 22 points, a game-high 15 boards along with two assists in Game 2, is averaging 19.5 points and 11.5 rebounds headed into Game 3.
The problem, or make that plural, is everyone else, who agree with that assessment.
“We’re making ‘Bron play hero ball, which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference Finals,” Smith, who shot 0-7 and didn’t score in Game 2, said. “We’ve got to help. And with that said, we have to give him the opportunity for us to make him feel confident to give us the ball, so we can make the right plays. We’ve got to help him, and he’s got to help us.”
Thompson, who started Game 2 after coming off the bench in Game 1, said James, despite his enormous talents and abilities to take over a game, cannot be asked to shoulder all the load himself.
“I’ve never seen a game score in the 40s unless it’s in the Big Ten, Penn State and Illinois and Ohio State. Other guys got to contribute,” he said. “Other guys got to step up. We’ve all got to do it collectively. Of course, it’s a huge luxury having LeBron on our team, but at the same time we’ve got to be ready to play, and we’ve got to do our job. If you’re shooters, you’ve got to make shots.
“If you’re going to finish on the rim, you’ve got to finish on the rim. Rebounders, whatever your job is on this team, we need you to do it at a high level.”
Aside from the All-Stars, James and Love, and three other Cavaliers have reached double figures in points in the ECF.
Rodney Hood (11) and Jordan Clarkson (10) did so in Game 1, while Kyle Korver (11) did so in Game 2. Conversely, Boston had four in double figures in the series opener and upped it to six for Game 2.
Ball and player movement has been night and day between the two teams. While the Cavaliers have 36 assists on 68 field goals, while the Celtics have 51 dimes on 83 buckets.
“I think Boston does a great job moving the ball,” Thompson said. “I think the ball — when everyone is touching it — it gives energy and it makes guys feel good. It makes guys feel good, and as a player you feel way more comfortable making a play if you touch it every possession, not just if you’re scoring.
“But if you just feel the ball instead of going five possessions and just getting the ball and you have to shoot it with five seconds on the clock. You’ve got to get the ball hopping, and if we get bodies moving, we’ve got the athletes and the players, and if we can cause triggers, that’s going to be in our favor.”
Starting point guard George Hill, who has been a non-factor in the first two games, agreed. He, Smith and Jeff Green have scored a combined 29 points on 6-of-28 shooting, with six assists and seven turnovers. In other words, yuck.
“I don’t really play by if I get this many assists or if I get this many rebounds or this many points. I think you guys worry more about that than I do,” Hill said. “I just try to play the game, and right now, I’m not playing the game the right way.
“I’m trying to figure it out myself,” he said. “I think a little bit of just trying to be more involved offensively, trying to be more involved defensively, not waiting until a play is possibly called and things like that to go do it. I’ve just got to be more assertive, I’ve got to play with that edge like I did in the second series
“There’s no one to blame but myself. You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better?’”
Smith, tagged with a Flagrant 1 foul for his shove in the back on Boston’s Al Horford with less than four minutes to play in Game 2, is of the belief that Cavaliers must come out stronger, literally, against the Celtics.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if he could make a shot or two. HIs totals for two games — 4 points on 2-of-16 shooting (including 0-for-7 from deep), four rebounds and two assists.
“We’ve got to play more physical from the start,” Smith said. “A lot of times, when they get the ball, they’re into their offense at 19, 18 on the shot clock, and we’re into ours at like 12 or 13, so we’ve got to pressure the ball, try to keep them out of the paint as best we can, and at the end of the day, keep contesting.”
But time is running out, quickly, to do so. Nineteen times in history an NBA team has rallied to win a best-of-7 series after falling behind, 2-0. Three of those instances came in the last two years, one being the aforementioned Cavs’ title team of 2016.
“I was talking to some of the guys in the training room and I was telling people it was already the Eastern Conference Finals,” Smith said. “Being in this situation repetitively for the past couple years, I don’t want to say you get numb to it because you don’t want to take it for granted because obviously, guys don’t have this opportunity to many times, but this season alone has been an extremely weird year and we just got to figure it out.”
Thompson said, basically, it’s time for the Cavaliers to either step up or take a seat.
“This is for all the marbles. We’re down 0-2,” Thompson said. “If you don’t like to talk, you’re going to talk now. And if you don’t want to talk, you can sit your ass on the bench.
“That’s what it is, point blank, simple. If we’re not all communicating, all five of us, we’ve got no chance.”