With their season on the line, even the NBA’s most unpredictable team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, could be counted on to bring a big effort in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.
So while the exact margin — a 116-86 throttling of the Boston Celtics — will come as some surprise, the fact Cleveland cut its deficit in half isn’t surprising in the least. LeBron James was not going to be swept.
Saturday’s win sets up Game 4 back in Cleveland Monday night, the game that should determine which of these teams go to the NBA Finals.
“They will be ready in Game 4,” James said of the Celtics in his postgame interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke. “[Celtics Coach Brad Stevens] will have his guys ready.”
If Cleveland can win again Monday, it seems unlikely he’ll be denied a victory in Boston in one of Games 5 or 7. Given how poorly the Celtics have played on the road in these playoffs (more on that in a minute), expecting them to win in Cleveland to either stay alive or close out the Cavaliers in Game 6 seems like too much to expect.
If Boston can win Monday, though, the Celtics will go back home for Wednesday’s Game 5 with all of the momentum, and the Cavaliers, a fragile team to begin with, could easily break having to face a 3-1 deficit.
Sure, the Cavaliers did that two years ago to beat a far better team, the 73-win Golden State Warriors, and win an NBA title. But this isn’t the same Cavaliers team — not by a long shot.
It doesn’t need to be, though, to beat Boston three more times. After losing Game 3, Boston is now 1-5 in six road games in these playoffs. The Celtics are 15th among 16 teams in field goal percentage in the playoffs and 15th in three-point field goal percentage on the road. They now have been outscored by 75 points in those six games, an average of 12.5 points per game.
That’s a lot of data that points to Boston having trouble winning in Cleveland. If the Celtics can find a way to reverse that trend in Game 4, the series will be in their hands.
As is usually the case when teams switch venues in a series, the supporting players rose and fell depending where they were playing. All five Cavaliers starters finished in double figures, led by 27 points and 12 assists from James. Cleveland shot 17-for-34 from three.
More importantly, the Cavaliers simply looked more engaged. They were playing hard from the start, flying around the court defensively in an effort inspired in part by making shots.
“It was a combination of both,” James said. “More importantly when we broke down defensively we had guys flying at guys … not giving up on plays like in Game 1 and 2. That was a big part in us being a lot better defensively today.”
That shot-making began with George Hill, who got off to a hot start and scored 13 points — all in the first half — to help Cleveland open up a 20-point halftime lead. J.R. Smith had hit two shots in the first two games, including no threes, but hit three triples in Game 3. Kyle Korver went a perfect 5-for-5 from the field, scoring 14 points off the bench.
Kevin Love went just 4-for-14 from the field, but finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. Tristan Thompson had 10 points and seven rebounds and formed a devastatingly effective pick-and-roll partnership with James.
It was basically everything Cleveland didn’t get in the first two games from its supporting cast.
“George Hill was phenomenal from the start, being aggressive,” James said. “Even though Kevin wasn’t hitting shots early he was being aggressive. J.R. was hitting shots. Tristan was being really good screening and rolling. We had our focus, and offensively and defensively we were good.”
Boston, meanwhile, got none of that. Jayson Tatum was good, scoring 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting. The rest of the Celtics, though, were awful. Boston shot 39 percent from the field overall, and just 6-for-22 from three. The Celtics had four fast break points after getting 11 and 12 in Games 1 and 2, respectively.
All of this was expected. Cleveland was desperate and Boston had the 2-0 advantage. It now sets up the game that will truly decide this series Monday night.
Whoever wins that game becomes the favorite to advance. LeBron James isn’t done yet.
With the Cavaliers destroying the Celtics, ESPN has shifted to full scale promotion mode in the third quarter of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
First, it was Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson debating outfits worn at Saturday’s Royal Wedding, including Van Gundy telling Jackson about Queen Elizabeth loaning Meghan Markle her tiara.
That was bad enough. But then ESPN went into straight product-placement mode. After a commercial earlier in the game for the upcoming “Star Wars” movie about Han Solo featured Dwyane Wade flying with Chewbacca in the Millennium Falcon, Disney took things to another level by showing someone dressed as him sitting in the front row of the stands:
This was a new low on Disney’s part, though this game has been so dreadful that Chewbacca’s presence might be the most memorable thing about it once it is finally over.
LeBron James has been slicing and dicing Boston’s defense on pick-and-rolls with Tristan Thompson in this game. This pass in the third quarter, setting up a Thompson dunk, is one example:
The combination of Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris has struggled, in particular, to contain James, who can make just about any pass in any situation. He’s up to nine assists in 30 minutes, and this game is just about over, folks.
If you want a view inside the psyche of J.R. Smith the basketball player, this clip, courtesy of friend of this space Rob Perez, tells you all you need to know:
Smith, after going 0-for-7 in Game 2 and 2-for-16 for four points in the first two games of the series, has finally begun to snap out of his funk by hitting two threes in the first half.
The Cavaliers look like a team with its season on the line. They have a 20-point halftime lead in Game 3 as a result.
Shooting 21-for-41 from the field and 9-for-17 from three, Cleveland is up 61-41 at the break behind 19 points and six assists from LeBron James. Just as important have been the 13 points, two assists and no turnovers from George Hill, and the pair of threes hit by J.R. Smith.
After James got no help outside of Kevin Love in the two games in Boston, the “others” have been good in this game. Meanwhile, the Celtics have reverted to their playoff-long struggles on the road, with only rookie Jayson Tatum (13 points on 4-for-6 shooting) showing up in the first half.
Boston hasn’t been able to get out in transition, hasn’t hit threes (2-for-9 from deep), and has struggled inside (5-for-11 in the restricted area, 7-for-18 on all shots in the paint).
The Cavaliers have the league’s most unpredictable team. But the way they are playing in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals is entirely predictable.
Showing the desperation necessary to get themselves back into this series, Cleveland opened up a 20-point lead in the second quarter. It helps that the Celtics are shooting 38 percent overall and 2-for-8 from three-point range.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is over 50 percent overall and 8-for-14 from three-point range, limiting Boston’s transition opportunities. After scoring 11 fast break points in Game 1 and 12 in Game 2, Boston has just two late in the first half.
Surprisingly, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue unshackled Jordan Clarkson from Cleveland’s bench after the guard got zero minutes in Game 2.
Clarkson’s minutes Saturday have come at the expense of Rodney Hood, who has also been awful. To be fair to Lue, he doesn’t have many options; he still has to play Jeff Green just to soak up some minutes, despite the fact Green remains terrible.
If it was me, I’d rather see Cedi Osman play. Osman might not be an offensive threat, but he’s always going to bring effort and energy, two things Cleveland needs a lot of.
But given how the Cavaliers are playing so far, holding a 45-28 lead midway through the second quarter, it’s hard to quibble with much of what Lue is doing.
The Cavaliers were always expected to get off to a strong start in Game 3, given how much was on the line.
The result was a 32-17 Cleveland lead after one.
James has a quick 12 points for Cleveland, while George Hill has 11 — after he and J.R. Smith combined for 12 in the first two games of the series.
“George Hill got going early, and then he did a great job of following that up,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said during his between-quarters interview. “Defensively we haven’t been as bad as it has looked most of the time, but offensively we have to take better shots.”
Boston, meanwhile, started just 6-for-20 overall, and 1-for-6 from three. Poor shooting, combined with five turnovers becoming five Cleveland points, are a pretty terrible combination if the Celtics want to be competitive in this game.
After LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the first round of the playoffs with a win over the Indiana Pacers in seven games, I wrote that getting this Cavs team back to the NBA Finals might be the greatest accomplishment of his career.
At the time, some derided that statement, given James has done so many remarkable things in his career: winning three titles, including the first for the city of Cleveland in more than a half-century; four most valuable player awards; never getting injured while playing more minutes and at a higher level than anyone in the league over the past 15 seasons.
But with Cleveland trailing 2-0 to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals as the series shifts back to Northeast Ohio for Game 3 Saturday night, I have a feeling more people will start shifting my way.
The task in front of James is daunting. Other than Kevin Love, he doesn’t have much help at the moment. Kyle Korver can be attacked defensively. Tristan Thompson can be attacked offensively. J.R. Smith has swung wildly from great to horrific throughout the playoffs — with horrific winning out far more often. Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson have been disasters. Larry Nance has fallen behind Thompson in the rotation. George Hill intermittently disappears.
Meanwhile, the Celtics just keep coming with relentless energy and waves of young, athletic players — not to mention Al Horford, who is having the best two-month stretch of what has already been an impressive season, anchoring this Boston team throughout the postseason. Young players like rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown are growing up by the day, while Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart have had more good days than bad.
All of this, though, doesn’t mean Cleveland is done — not yet, anyway. Count out James at your own peril. The Celtics are 9-0 at home and 1-4 on the road in these playoffs. It took Boston seven games to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round before playing four straight coin flip games in Games 2 through 5 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston easily could’ve lost all four of them; instead, they won three out of four (largely because Philadelphia shot itself in the foot repeatedly).
James is capable of turning this thing around, and getting himself back to an eighth straight Finals, and the Cavaliers to a fourth straight. Doing so, though, will require winning tonight.
No team has come back from down 3-0 in NBA history in a best-of-seven series. Even for James, that is too much to ask.
No, the Cavaliers will have to win both of these games in Cleveland if they want to give themselves a chance. They’ll get their shot at the first one in a few hours.
Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers, 8:30 p.m., ESPN (Boston leads 2-0)
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