CLEVELAND – Maybe the Boston Celtics win Game 4 of these Eastern Conference finals, maybe they go home and clinch the series in Game 5. Maybe by the middle of next week, the narrative of this team — a young group of upstarts who survived the loss of its All-Star backcourt to make one of the most improbable Finals runs in NBA history — is restored. It’s possible. The Celtics — who shot 39.2 percent from the floor, 27.3 percent from 3-point range and never led in Saturday’s 116-86 drubbing — couldn’t play worse than they did in Game 3. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, with six players in double figures and a defense that was flying around the floor, likely can’t play better.
But if there’s a lesson to be learned from Saturday’s slaughter, it’s this: When LeBron James plays great, Cleveland is tough. When LeBron’s teammates show up, the Cavs are unbeatable — in the Eastern Conference, anyway.
Looking for a silver lining for the Celtics in this Boston massacre? Good luck finding one. Jaylen Brown — the star of the first two games of this series — had one of his worst games of the playoffs. Noting that Brown is an excellent first-quarter scorer, the Cavs keyed on him with James closing out hard, forcing Brown to put the ball on the floor, cutting off his drives to the basket and making him play in a crowd. It worked. Brown had two points in the first half, the only time the outcome was ever in doubt.
“I just don’t think they let me catch the ball,” Brown 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.”
What got into Cleveland? Game 3 of a series is typically a home-friendly one, especially when the home team is in a 2-0 hole. No team in NBA playoff history has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit, so Boston knew it would get the desperate Cavs’ best shot. Cleveland has proven capable of producing great offense. A 22-point win in Boston in February, when the Cavs’ reshaped roster produced seven players in double figures, is evidence of that. James’ 27-point, 12-assist performance Saturday night wasn’t surprising. A top-five scoring offense in the regular season busting out for 116 points wasn’t either.
But defense? A great defensive night in Cleveland is rarer than a royal wedding. But for 48 minutes on Saturday the Cavs flustered Brown, stifled Terry Rozier (13 points) and forced Marcus Morris (a team-worst minus-28) into a horrific shooting night. Midway through the first quarter, Celtics coach Brad Stevens inserted Guerschon Yabusele — who had played nine minutes the entire postseason entering Game 3 — and minutes later Stevens dusted off Greg Monroe, hoping the offensive-minded big man would provide a spark in the paint.
The result: He didn’t.
“We were clearly not as good as we had been,” Stevens said. “We were going to have to steal minutes with some guys. Right now, with the way that they are playing, we’re going to need some other guys to be ready to go on Monday.”
So what gives? How does a Cavs team that was blitzed for 108 points in Game 1 and 107 in Game 2 produce this type of defensive effort?
“I don’t know,” James said.
“I don’t know, either,” Love said.
So after a game that was effectively over after the first quarter, both teams have to wonder: What’s sustainable? Boston credited the Cavs’ defense while acknowledging that its offense was uncharacteristically isolation-heavy. “We need to do a better job moving the ball,” Al Horford said. “I think if we move the ball better, we will all benefit from that, and it will be better.”
Inside the Celtics’ locker room, there was shell shock. Throughout these playoffs, Boston had owned the physical stuff. They battled Milwaukee, punked the Sixers and in the first two games of this series took it right at James and Co. Yet on Saturday it was the Cavs who were the bullies, crushing the Celtics on the glass (45-34), muscling Boston all over the floor.
“The toughest team sets the rules,” Rozier said. “And they came out aggressive from the jump and never looked back.”
And what about the Celtics’ playoff road woes? Boston’s home brilliance (9-0) has been nearly matched by its road ineptitude (1-5). Stevens bristles at the suggestion that his team is overmatched away from the TD Garden. “We were great in the regular season on the road,” Stevens said. But the Celtics have been steamrolled twice on the road this postseason and badly need a win in Game 4 to keep James from reclaiming the momentum in this series.
But this Boston team is resilient. “We needed to get our butts whooped,” Rozier said. Up 2-0 on Milwaukee, and the Celtics were blown out in Game 3. They dropped Game 4 narrowly, rallied to win Game 5 and eventually took the series in seven. There is no fear of Cleveland, just a voracious appetite to study the game film on Sunday and correct mistakes.
“There were a lot of breakdowns defensively for our group,” Horford said. “We didn’t have that the first two games. It’s something we need to address and be better Monday if we want to have any sort of chance of winning.”
Can Cleveland submit a similar effort? The Cavs admit they didn’t reinvent the wheel in this one. They tweaked the defense on Brown but, Love said, “We didn’t make any huge adjustments.” Offensively there was more movement, but Cleveland ran up the score thanks to big shooting nights from George Hill (13 points), J.R. Smith (11) and Kyle Korver (14), who combined for 10 of the Cavs’ 17 3-pointers.
“It’s important for our guards to be aggressive,” James said. “No matter if they are making shots or not, we want them to be aggressive. It just keeps the defense at bay.”
James challenged his teammates after Game 2, and they delivered. They will need to do the same on Monday. The Cavs sent Boston a message, reminded the world that when James’ brilliance is coupled with strong efforts from his supporting cast, the three-time conference champs are still the class of the East. But the margin for error is paper-thin. It was the Cavaliers, not LeBron James, who embarrassed Boston in Game 3, and the formula will need to be the same for Cleveland in Game 4. The Celtics have been knocked down, but Cleveland understands this: It will take more than LeBron to knock them out.
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