2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Finals: Celtics (2) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Boston Celtics again frustrate Cleveland Cavaliers, grab 2-0 lead as Eastern Conference finals turns chippy

Celtics overcome LeBron James' 42-point triple-double, improve to 9-0 at home in playoffs

BOSTON — The chant went up at TD Garden soon after Al Horford went down. As ugly as J.R. Smith’s two-handed shove to Horford’s back looked deep into the fourth quarter of the Boston Celtics’ eventual 107-94 victory Tuesday night, that’s how vulgar the ruckus raised by the arena’s most boisterous fans sounded.

The chorus of “[Bleep] you J.R.” rained down on him after the Cleveland guard’s flagrant 1 foul and could be heard through the TV broadcast. Meanwhile, the man the Cleveland Cavaliers call “Swish” kind of just smirked

“I loved it,” Smith said in a dreary visitors dressing room afterward. “I don’t want the opposing fans to like me. That’s not why I’m here. They can chant and scream all they want. It actually makes me feel better about myself. They know me.”

Some Cavaliers fans might have been muttering the same words, though, considering the timing and impact of Smith’s shove of Horford. Less than a minute before that, Cleveland — in spite of its meltdown in the second half — had used a brief spurt to get within two possessions at 95-89. LeBron James’ bump of Horford at 4:25 put Boston into the bonus for two free throws that nudged the lead to eight.

But Smith’s cheap shot, which looked borne of frustration, pushed the game over the edge. Tempers flared, Smith and Celtics guard Marcus Smart jawed and tussled their way to dueling technical fouls and Horford sank his free throws.

On the subsequent possession awarded with the flagrant, the fired-up Horford posted up Kevin Love, spun around him and dropped in a reverse layup while drawing a foul (he missed the free throw). After a poise-challenged pair of turnovers by the Cavs, Horford nailed a jump shot from 21 feet. Now the Celtics’ lead was 14, with less than three minutes left.

The game had been grimy all night. Larry Nance Jr. and Aron Baynes went to the floor and grabbed the basketball, but wrestled way beyond what was necessary to force a jump ball. Marcus Morris and Tristan Thompson had to be separated and earned matching techs when they tumbled over the baseline, Morris woofing directly in Thompson’s face.

Most of the early stuff, though, was give and take. By the time of Smith’s transgression, the Cavs were completely on the taking end.

And now the three-time Eastern Conference champions are down 0-2, desperate for some homecourt love back in Cleveland but searching for answers too.

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They had led earlier in the evening by 11 points. They got the sort of monster game the world expected from James — 42 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists — in response to Cleveland’s blowout loss in Game 1. And still, the younger, more together Celtics were unfazed, dominating the second half by 20 points and in every other significant category as well.

“We were terrible defensively,” said Thompson, who was moved into the starting lineup as coach Tyronn Lue’s most obvious game-to-game adjustment but contributed only two rebounds and four points after halftime.

Smith struggled throughout with his shot, going 0-for-7 and missing all four of his 3-point attempts. He was so bad at that end he probably shouldn’t have been brought back late, except that Jaylen Brown was having his way with Kyle Korver and Lue has leaned on Smith’s defense on many nights.

This wasn’t one of them. Smith missed his final 3-pointer with Marcus Smart pestering him closely, and his shove as Horford jumped under the rim came immediately after that. Smith denied feeling frustrated, but the plays sure looked connected.

“The hardest part is when you can’t score and they keep scoring,” he said. “That’s the thing that’ll drive you crazy. We all know in this room, we’ve all been professionals for a long time, we’re not going to make every [shot]. In order to be successful in the playoffs, if you’re not making, you’ve got to make sure they’re not making. You’ve got to turn to defensive effort. We just didn’t do that.”

Said Thompson: “If we don’t get stops on the defensive end, they’re going to make open threes. Then they’re going to have rhythm and their guys are going to feel good. If you don’t play no defense in the playoffs, especially in the conference finals, you’re not gonna win a ball game.”

The Cavaliers didn’t defend the way they’d like to, but that’s been a season-long deficiency. Offensively, they were better than Sunday but not nearly enough. James, who took a blow to the jaw from Jayson Tatum’s left shoulder in the second quarter and briefly left the game, and Love combined for 64 points. The other seven who played before Lue waved the white flag managed only 30. Take away Brown’s 23 and Terry Rozier’s 18 for Boston and the other Celtics were good for 66.

Boston has rolled at home this postseason, going 9-0 so far at TD Garden vs. 1-4 on the road. That’s not unusual for a younger group such as the Celtics, and the Cavs are right to expect a shift in bravado and tenacity with Games 3 and 4 at Quicken Loans Arena beginning Saturday (8:30 ET, ESPN)

James suggested his concern level still is pointing to zero, no different than after the first loss. “I’ll recalibrate,” he said a couple times about his prep work for Game 3.

And yet, with a complete Cavs performance so elusive, with a backcourt of Smith and George Hill contributing little this round, with the new guys who arrived in February wholly unreliable and with a feisty ensemble opponent brimming with more confidence daily, the needles on some urgency meters back in Cleveland could well be buried to the right.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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