BOSTON – For old times sake the fans here booed LeBron. Which made him feel at home.
In this highly-hyped showdown of the top two teams in the East, the young Boston Celtics had hoped to prove they were ahead of schedule in their franchise mission to displace James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. Then LeBron put his size-15 foot down with 36 points in a drama-free 114-91 win that instantly restored Cleveland as a likely NBA Finalist for a third straight year.
“We put together a good string of basketball for just about 48 minutes, and it felt like us,” said Kevin Love, who contributed 15 points and 16 rebounds. “It had been a while since we’ve put together a game like that, and we needed that.”
For the Celtics, the truth hurt badly. Not only did they cede command of the No. 1 seed in the conference – Cleveland holds a one-game lead with four to play, plus the tiebreaker based on their 3-1 record vs. Boston – but they were embarrassed in front of their crowd of optimists, who could be heard booing in the third and were clearing out before the fourth.
With no postseason series wins since 2012, and in lieu of the big trades they’re hoping to make and the two high lottery picks they’re expecting to receive from Brooklyn, Boston was not yet ready to compete at James’ high level.
“They came out playing harder than us with a purpose,” said Boston guard Avery Bradley. “At the beginning of the game we weren’t playing the right way and it’s hard to come back from that.”
All of the trends had been leaning Boston’s way. The Celtics had the favorable closing schedule with two full days to rest and prepare for this showdown. The Cavaliers, in the meantime, had appeared to be exhausted (or just bored) while ranking No. 28 in defensive efficiency since the All-Star break that resulted in an 11-11 record over the last six weeks -- all of which had raised alarms that James may not reach his seventh straight NBA Finals after all.
After so many extended postseason runs, the NBA’s hardest-working star ranks No. 2 in minutes this season and was playing his third game in four nights, beginning with a 52-minute stint in double OT Sunday, followed by 37 minutes on Tuesday night in Cleveland. But you never knew it as he seized control early.
Trailing by a point after a quiet opening period, James exploded for 15 points and three assists in the second quarter to give Cleveland a 57-42 advantage at the half. In one back-and-forth flurry, he dunked in transition behind Jae Crowder, then swoop-blocked Marcus Smart from behind at the other end, then banked in a runner over Al Horford.
“I always try and take what the game is giving me,” said James, “but I’m always in the flow of things seeing if I can dictate the game, push the pace a little bit more in the second quarter. With our lineup, I was able to get into the paint, finish them at the rim, make some things happen and it definitely worked wonders for our team.”
His prolific scoring was supplemented by 10 rebounds, six assists and an outrageous +32 impact in 39 minutes. The Cavs followed his example by moving the ball beautifully and routinely looking to complete long passes ahead in transition. They outscored Boston 58-48 in the paint and 19-11 on the break while building their lead up to 29 points in the second half.
Cleveland’s enhanced defense held their hosts to 40.7 percent overall and 21.2 percent from the arc. Thomas led Boston with 26 points and six assists, but he went 1 for 8 from the 3-point line and no other Celtic added more than 13 points.
“Defensively we were really good,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. ”We were able to pull out some schemes to slow Isaiah down. They got frustrated early and took them out of the game.”
Dating back to the 2011 playoffs, when James scored his big breakthrough over his nemesis Boston, the decaying-and-then-rebuilding Celtics have gone 14-24 against LeBron’s teams in Miami and Cleveland.
“Just trying to get our team right,” said James. “Going down the stretch brings out the best in me. We knew we were coming into a hostile building tonight so we just wanted to try to play our game, defend at a high level, move the ball, share the ball and we did that.”
Tristan Thompson (sprained right thumb) was left behind in Cleveland, which not only ended his league-leading streak of consecutive games at 447, but also robbed the Cavaliers of a lethal rebounder whose 36 rebounds (13 offensive) had exploited Boston’s weakness on the boards in three previous meetings. In his absence Cleveland bullied Boston on the glass (51-38), while his replacement at center, Channing Frye, provided eight rebounds and 10 points in 17 minutes. All of Cleveland’s starters scored in double-figures.
The Cavaliers proved once more that they are capable of winning on an enemy court under any circumstances. And now – in the Eastern bracket at least – it’s a feat that may no longer be necessary.
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