BOSTON – Steve Pagliuca, the co-owner of the Boston Celtics, pulled the ping-pong balls out of his pocket gently like a farmer cradling four precious eggs. Pagliuca had been stationed in the back room Tuesday night in New York to officially witness the drawing of the Draft lottery. His souvenirs were numbered 1, 7, 9 and 10.
"This has been a great 48 hours for the Celtics,’’ someone from out of town said to chief owner Wyc Grousbeck, who was standing on the parquet court near Pagliuca.
"I’d love to make it 72,’’ Grousbeck said.
They were going to have to settle for the 48. They were going to lose Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals 117-104 on Wednesday to the defending-champion Cleveland Cavaliers. A night that began with hopes of challenging LeBron James was going to end with him generating 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists like some kind of far-fetched cross between Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Leonardo da Vinci.
"t's hard to believe, but he's better than when I got into the league," said coach Brad Stevens, who is finishing his fourth season with the Celtics. "A lot better."
This evening was a lesson in perspective, like the real-life ending to a fairy tale or a George Romero movie. On Monday at home the Celtics had survived Game 7 of their exhilarating conference semifinal against Washington. On Tuesday, as the No. 1 seed in the East, they had won the NBA draft lottery for the first time – at the expense of the hated Lakers, no less.
"I was just like wow, OK," James was saying at the Cavaliers shootaround Wednesday morning. "To be a very, very good team and get the No. 1 pick?"
That result had been launched in 2013, when Ainge abruptly exchanged the past for the future. In a span of weeks coach Doc Rivers was replaced by Stevens, an NBA newcomer whose development of his young players has exceeded expectations each of the last three years; and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry were sent to the Nets in a trade for four unprotected first-round picks that could turn out to be one of the biggest steals of modern times.
"They got the better side of that situation with Brooklyn, I will tell you that," said James.
But that Draft pick was for tomorrow. LeBron is now. He is the Celtics’ incontrovertible reality, and he wasted no time forcing his point of view on them with three plays in the opening quarter.
Go ahead and trade for Jimmy Butler, James seemed to be saying as he drove straight at Kelly Olynyk and finished with his left hand.
Do you really want to gamble on Paul George for a year? he was asking rhetorically, pacing the frontcourt back and forth with his back-turned dribble, before driving again on Olynyk to finish with his right.
As he faced up from the left elbow for the third straight possession, sizing up Jaylen Brown -- his next victim, over whom he was going to rattle in a hard-charging runner -- James was acting out a prescient warning. He was insisting to the Celtics, for their own good, that they use their No. 1 pick to invest in the future. Because what would be the sense in trading for Butler, George or anyone else who cannot surpass him?
James -- who at 32 is already the lone NBA player to rank in the top 10 in postseason points, rebounds and assists -- has won 12 straight playoff games dating back to the 2016 postseason. Sometime next week he will be headed for his seventh straight NBA Finals. And neither his interest nor his athleticism appear to be diminishing.
"It's tough to continue to keep playing hard -- even though we need to -- when you don't see shots fall. We can't let that happen again."
This game was essentially decided by the end of the first quarter. The Cavs were up 30-19 and James (7-for-8 shooting) already had 15 points and two assists while generating one fewer field goal than the entire Celtics roster. His shot chart looked like a sniper’s target on the firing range. All of his green circles were zeroed in around the basket.
"He made it clear," said Stevens. "It was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him."
Stevens agreed that the Celtics would have to adapt their rotations to offer more resistance against LeBron. But he did not sound optimistic. "Who do you help off of?" Stevens said. "Once we started helping and over-helping a little bit, Love goes nuts in the third quarter."
He was referring to Kevin Love, who finished with 32 points (on 16 shots) and 12 rebounds. "This is the predicament they put you in," said Stevens.
"He has to see bodies behind me," said Celtics small forward Jae Crowder of his matchup against LeBron. "We have to do a better job of showing help early, then getting out and spreading out to the shooters so they won't be a factor in the game."
The Celtics stuffed the stat sheet in the second half to provide Crowder (21 points, eight rebounds and five assists), Avery Bradley (21 points) and Thomas (17 points and 10 assists) with misleading numbers. The real story emerged at halftime: Trailing 61-39, Boston was being outrebounded 28-14, Thomas had eight points after a 1-for-9 start, and the Celtics were 2 of 16 from the arc.
"I think that was a big reason why our defense was let down," said Thomas. "It's tough to continue to keep playing hard -- even though we need to -- when you don't see shots fall. We can't let that happen again."
The fans appeared to have their most fun booing LeBron and cheering for Marcus Smart during a couple of third-quarter skirmishes with Tristan Thompson. When Thompson earned a foul for running over Smart in the third quarter, Boston’s third guard stayed face-down to celebrate by slapping the floor repeatedly -- in brazen spite of the scoreboard (89-66) that was hovering directly over him like an anvil. Not to mention the 20 points (7 of 7) and nine rebounds that Thompson was going to post on his team.
For key stretches the Celtics played as if in a frantic hurry against the Cavaliers, who had been resting since their May 7 sweep of Toronto.
Boston’s most inspired performer was Brown, their explosive rookie who had his best playoff game with 10 points (5 of 7) and nine rebounds. "He's just a special athlete," Stevens said. "He can do things that other guys can't do, whether it's offensive rebounding or getting to the basket. We need some of those things, so I would expect him to continue to play a large role for us in this series."
Isn’t it relevant to point out that Brown went No. 3 in last year’s Draft? It makes you think about what the No. 1 pick may do someday.
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