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What would you have thought if you had been told the following going into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics:
* LeBron James is going to post a 42-point triple-double, shooting 16 of 29 and adding 10 rebounds, 12 assists and a blocked shot in 39 minutes. James now has three career playoff 40-point triple-doubles, the most in NBA playoff history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
* Kevin Love is going to register his fourth 20-point game in his last five, with 22 points on 9-of-18 shooting, hauling down a game-high 15 boards and handing out a pair of assists.
* The Cavaliers are going to shoot 46.3 percent from the floor on 37-of-80 shooting.
You probably would’ve been thinking, “how many points did the Cavaliers win by?”
Boston 107, Cleveland 94.
With the series shifting to Quicken Loans Arena for Games 3 and 4, the Cavaliers are faced with this to sit in their craw for almost a week:
James and Love combined for 64 points, on 25-of-47 shooting (53.2 percent), 25 rebounds and 14 assists… and the other nine guys who played combined for this stat line — 30 points, on 12-of-33 shooting (36.4 percent), 20 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots.
That’s not going to cut it against a team playing as hard, as well and as together as these Celtics. All five Boston starters reached double figures in Jaylen Brown (23), Terry Rozier (18), Al Horford (15), Marcus Morris (12) and Jayson Tatum (11), being joined by Marcus Smart (11) and almost by Aron Baynes (9).
Kyle Korver (11 points) and Tristan Thompson (8 points, 7 boards), who started Game 2 as expected in an effort to contain Horford, were the only other Cavs to show signs of life.
Korver believes the Cavaliers’ energy level was not what it should have been. Leading 47-36 with 3:50 to play in the first half, they allowed Boston to close to within seven by halftime.
“We need more energy. I thought it was on both sides of the ball, starting in the third quarter,” Korver said. “The first half, we played pretty well. Then again, we didn’t finish off the half the way I think we wanted to. But our energy just wasn’t there in the second half. And that affects how you shoot the ball. That affects the shots you get. That affects everything. And we just didn’t have good energy.
“We played how we needed to play in the first half, besides the ending,” he continued. “That’s a good model for how we need to play and the physicality we need to play with and how hard we have to play, the energy we have to play with. It just wasn’t there in the second half for us. We need to look at the first half and say, ‘This is how we need to play,’ and look at the second half and say, ‘This is how we need to not play.’”
Thompson decried Cleveland’s defensive effort.
“I thought defensively, we were horrible. We were terrible defensively. We were (crap) defensively,” Thompson said. “Of course LeBron is going to put up those numbers, but if we don’t get stops on the defensive end, they’re going to make open 3s and they’re going to have rhythm and their guys are going to feel good. If you don’t play no defense, especially in the conference finals, you’re not going to win a ballgame.
“We reviewed it so many damn times,” he continued. “I think it’s just the communication, so guys know, ‘Hey, if the guy’s under control, don’t have to-over help.’ Or ‘If I’m going to trap the box, you gotta have my X.’ Or if we’re inverting, we’ve got to communicate. And don’t point switch.”
The rest of the Cavs? They pretty much wandered around akin to walkers in The Walking Dead, and in the case of J.R. Smith, another dead-from-the neck-up moment as well.
As has been their trademark all season and in the first round against Indiana, the Cavaliers fizzled in the third quarter, being outscored 36-22 after holding a 55-48 halftime advantage.
“We gave ourselves a pretty good chance with 36 minutes, but that 12 minutes in the third quarter, that killed us,” James said.
As it became clear Cleveland was not going to overcome the tenacious Boston defense, the old Smith flashed his all-too-familiar form, incurring a Flagrant-1 foul and then a technical for, well, a dirty-and-dangerous push of Horford with 3:49 to go and the Celtics leading, 97-89, while he was in midair and for then shoving Smart, who did not appreciate Smith blatantly crossing the line on Horford.
That means Smith had one more flagrant foul and one more technical foul than he did points in the game as he missed all seven shots he took, including four from beyond the 3-point arc, in 27 mostly disinterested minutes, his third scoreless performance in 13 playoff games this spring.
Smith was outstanding against Toronto, averaging 12.5 points and making 10 of 13 3-pointers.
“It was a good call. I blatantly pushed him. It wasn’t like I was trying to low bridge him or something,” Smith said. “Just make sure he didn’t get it.
“It was a good, hard foul. I can understand why they gave me a flagrant.”
Smart said Smith’s play was a “dirty shot.”
“That’s not the first time J.R. has done some dirty stuff, especially playing against us,” he said. “It’s like a bully, you keep letting a bully keep picking on you, he’s going to pick on you until you finally stand up. And that’s what I tried to do.”
Horford wasn’t fazed by Smith’s shove.
“I felt like it was uncalled for that type of play there,” Horford said. “We have each other’s backs. … We moved on to the next play way and we locked in after that.”
“Defensive-wise and he can make big shots,” Lue said, explaining why he stayed with Smith. “He’s taken big shots, made big shots for us. No matter what he’s shooting in the game, we know he can get going at any point in time, so that’s the reason.
Smith certainly wasn’t alone in being ineffective. Point guard George Hill, who had played so well in the final 19 minutes of Game 7 against Indiana and then in the second-round planting of top-seeded Toronto, finished with a final line of three points, two rebounds and one assist in 33 minutes. In two games against Boston, Cleveland’s starting point guard has eight points and one assist.
To say Boston won the starting backcourt battle would be an understatement of epic proportions — Rozier and Brown 41, Hill and Smith 3.
Jeff Green wasn’t much better, scoring six points with two boards, an assist, two blocks and five turnovers in 28 mostly meh minutes.
Then, there’s the three 25-year-olds acquired at the trade deadline Feb. 8. Their contributions?
* Rodney Hood — Two points, two rebounds, one assist in 11 minutes.
* Larry Nance Jr. — Zero points, three boards, two steals in 11 minutes.
* Jordan Clarkson — He looked sharp in his warmups, which he never took off as Lue never called his number.
“We’ve got to be tougher. I think they’re playing tougher than we are,” Lue said. “We see that. They’re being physical. They’re gooning the game up and we’ve got to do the same thing.”
Unlike Indiana and deer-in-the-headlights Toronto, Boston did not break when facing full-throttle LeBron, whose four 3-pointers in the first quarter were more than he made in the entire series against the Raptors.
“I think we just have a group of guys that really believe in each other,” Horford said. “Our group in tough times, we’ve always found a way.”
In full attack mode, James, who was spotted alone in TD Garden 10 hours before tipoff getting shots up, took 13 shots in the first 11.5 minutes in the first quarter, finishing with 21 points. He finished the opening quarter 8 of 13 from the field and 4 of 7 from the 3-point line.
However, it took a toll on the 33-year-old playing in his 13th playoffs, as in the third quarter when the Celtics were crushing the Cavaliers, James took just seven shots in a dozen minutes, with only Love providing any assistance.
So it’s come to this — James finds himself down 2-0 in a playoff series for the sixth time in his career — though he didn’t express concern in the postgame press conference, in which he took part with Love.
After answering six consecutive questions from reporters, James, as is his trademark, refused to show even a crack of doubt.
“The only way I probably won’t get no sleep tonight is if Kev don’t get asked a question asked,” James said through a smile. “I’m going to lose a lot of sleep if someone doesn’t ask him a question.”
The next couple of questions were directed in Love’s direction, but really, it didn’t matter. Boston has simply been the better team in Games 1 and 2.
James can try to deflect the danger he and his teammates are in against Boston, as he should, by the way, but the fact is, in those six series the teams he’s led lost the first two games of a series, he is only 2-4.
The two notable exceptions were in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, when James carried Cleveland past the proud Pistons and, of course, in 2016, when James led the Cavaliers back from a pair of two-game deficits — 2-0 and 3-1 — to defeat the Warriors to win the 2016 NBA title.
And while James and Love, and to (much) lesser events, Thompson and Smith, are still around from that championship team, there isn’t much else on which Cleveland to lean, as was evidenced Tuesday night. Unless, of course, you want to count Lue, who for some reason, known by only him, he had both James and Love off the floor at the same time as the deficit was increasing in the fourth quarter.
Boston improved to 9-0 this postseason at TD Garden. The Celtics have never blown a 2-0 series lead in the playoffs on their storied history, winning all 37 such series.
Even so, James refused to give an inch as the Cavaliers come home with their season on the line. Boston is 1-4 on the road in the playoffs, which would indicate Cleveland does have a chance to get off the canvas and make this a series, especially James, who missed a couple of minutes after taking an inadvertent shot to the jaw from Tatum.
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” he said. “You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that. They did what they had to do, and that was protect home, and now it’s our time to try to do that, as well.
“We’re about to find out what we’re made of.”
Ninety-five games in, that time has come.