CLEVELAND – Since everything in this NBA postseason seems to be framed by the anticipated Finals showdown between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, we’ll leave the Boston Celtics out of this discussion for now.
Wait, what? C’mon, the Celtics did some impressive, unexpected and appreciated things in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
In a tournament short on close competitive games – at least for the two heavyweights penciled in since October to still be playing in June – the Celtics clawed their way back after falling behind by 21 points. They did so without their most potent offensive player, point guard Isaiah Thomas (done for the playoffs with a right hip injury).
They did it against an opponent that was 57 points better than them in Games 1 and 2, against the defending champs, on the champs’ home floor. In stunning Cleveland 111-108 on Avery Bradley’s wide-open, blown-coverage 3-pointer that rattled in with :00.1 showing on the clock, the Celtics assured themselves of at least one more game at TD Garden. That means dragging back Shaq, Ernie, Kenny, Charles, the crew and the nation’s NBA fans to Boston to stretch this thing by two more days, anyway.
But yeah, in spite of all that, we’re going to set the Celtics aside for now. Narratives are narratives and the one that matters most is Warriors-Cavaliers III, the Rubber Match Finals.
Since the playoffs began, as Golden State and Cleveland shredded their first and second-round matchups with nary a hiccup between them, the storyline was that a third consecutive Finals meeting was inevitable. Not just that, but they probably were checking each other out from afar, toting up the point spreads in their respective blowout victories, counting the 3-pointers made, squinting hard in search of a flaw here or there.
Most recently, as the conference finals unfolded in similar fashion and the basketball world’s impatience grew, you could watch on TV or in person and imagine the Spurs and the Celtics dissolving into, yes, the opponents the Warriors and the Cavaliers were most eager to see: Each other.
Only, the Cavs blinked. They dropped off the fo’, fo’, fo’ preliminary track, leaving the Warriors alone at 11-0 while they lick their 10-1 wounds.
The question now: Did the Cavaliers lose more than one game? Did they lose face, let momentum slip, lapse into some bad habit lurking from their spotty regular season?
Or did they give themselves a whole lot of, ahem, teachable moments for film review Monday, while exposing some defensive shortcomings that will get extra reps on the practice floor?
And for the more superstitious among those participating or observing, the claim now might be: Better to get this out of the way now, rather than to have the invariable stumble in the Finals.
That sounded like LeBron James’ approach after – get the laminate ready to preserve something awfully rare here – he scored just 11 points in 45 minutes.
That wasn’t a typo. Eleven points. The lowest total of his 107 home playoff appearances. From the guy averaging 34.3 points per contest through Cleveland’s first 10 this spring.
“We’re going to crack down on the film tomorrow, for sure,” James said. “We’ve got to be a lot better. ... I think it’s great. What happened hurts. It’s a loss in the postseason. But I’m glad it kind of hurt, that it happened the way it did – let our foot off the gas a little bit, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we have been accustomed to.”
This much is certain: If James turned in such a sub-par, low-energy, pick-at-his-dinner performance in the Finals, résumé be damned, there’d be no end to the wailing and the criticism. If he put up this line in the second half of a game his team squandered in the championship round – three points on 1-of-8 shooting, one rebound, one assist, three turnovers and a minus-14 rating – even the White House would be tweeting about it.
Doing it now – up 2-1 one round earlier, Game 4 at home Tuesday and a half-dozen days off still available before the Finals opener if Cleveland dispatches the Celtics in five – gives James and the rest of them wiggle room that won’t be around long.
James reportedly was accosted by and bristled at a cranky Cavaliers fan near the interview room who wondered how he could score only 11 points. James locked in on the fan – pretty close to the definition of “ingrate” considering Cleveland’s first major championship in 52 years is just 11 months old – and moved towards him before security whisked the man away. James then got a little prickly from the podium, too, after his team blew the biggest lead of his playoff career, needling a local radio reporter.
As for his play – his lowest point total in 107 home playoff appearances – James summed it up by saying, “I didn’t have it. I was pretty poor.”
The Celtics, by comparison, were pretty gritty. Marcus Smart, normally a raggedy shooter, drained seven of his 10 3-point attempts and finished with 27 points starting in Thomas’ spot. Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko each added 10 points in the second half as Boston, down 77-56, outscored the champs 55-31 the rest of the way.
Coach Brad Stevens touted the Celtics’ character and eagerness to make up for their 130-86 pasting in Game 2. Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving said so little was expected of the Celtics by this point, they were able to “play free,” which made them dangerous.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue harped on his team’s turnovers (six in the fourth quarter). Tristan Thompson, who did a lot (18 points, 13 rebounds), talked about the Cavs not doing enough on James’ rare off-night. But the man himself soon started working on Monday’s message, one that Golden State might not be willing to embrace in Game 4 against San Antonio (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“I feel some adversity is all part of the postseason,” James said. “I feel like you have to have some type of adversity in order to be successful. If I was going to happen, let it happen now. Let us regroup. And all the narrative and everything that was going on, let’s regroup and let’s get back to playing desperate basketball.”
One more like this and they will be.
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