2024 Playoffs: East Semifinals | Celtics (1) vs. Cavaliers (4)

Celtics-Cavaliers: 5 takeaways as Boston rebounds in Game 3

Jayson Tatum is back, Jrue Holiday goes on the attack and the Cavs find out what they lack as Boston takes a 2-1 series leaad.

Jayson Tatum reasserted himself in Game 3 with 33 points and 13 rebounds.

CLEVELAND – The Boston Celtics beat the decibels out of Loudville Saturday night.

With their 106-93 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers to grab a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Celtics restored their supremacy in the matchup and did a little shushing in the process.

Make no mistake, the “Loudville” concept touted by the Cavaliers is real. This is a sports-crazed market with a chip on its shoulder, and the fans at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse are as boisterous as any in the NBA. On a random Thursday in January against, say, Charlotte, with a capacity crowd of 19,432 fully lathered, folks can walk out afterward with their ears ringing.

On this specific night in May, however, whatever the locals heard as they exited rang a little hollow.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s Game 3 at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

1. Accept the Celtics, hiccups and all

They did it in the first round against Miami, they did it the other night against Cleveland, and they might keep doing it all the way to the 18th NBA championship in franchise history.

Losing focus, coming up for air, smelling the roses – call it what you will, but the occasional lapse at this point seems to be in Boston’s DNA. The Celtics aren’t soft, but they aren’t exactly driven, either. What they are is talented, probably more than any other team, and they have yet to run into any opponents whose intangibles can overcome Boston’s tangibles.

So when they kicked away Game 2 vs. the Heat last round, then again in Game 2 against these Cavs on Thursday, the Celtics didn’t get a severe tongue-lashing from either coach Joe Mazzulla or the mirror. They just leaned into their skills, their depth, their smarts and their confidence. It has worked well through 70 victories – 64 in the regular season, six more in the playoffs – in their ambition to reach 80.

“We’ve got enough talent in the locker room to beat teams,” Jaylen Brown said, “but if we’re not on the same page and we’re not playing hard, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble.”

2. The same goes for Tatum 

Boston assumes control of Game 3 behind 61 points and 22 rebounds from its star duo.

The Celtics’ best player is not another Kobe Bryant. He definitely isn’t Michael Jordan, and he might not even be Anthony Edwards as far as ruthlessness on the basketball court. What Jayson Tatum is, though, is a marvelous bundle of skills and the No. 1 focus of game plans everywhere.

His shooting has been off in the series – 41% overall, 22% on 3s – and whoa, has he heard about it. But it almost seems like nitpicking given the overall production: 25.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game.

“I don’t always agree with what [critics] say and maybe I feel like they’re not always watching everything I do,” the 26-year-old forward said after scoring 33 points on 25 shots in 42 minutes Saturday. “But that’s not my job to focus on that.

Tatum doesn’t chew scenery or get very obvious in rallying teammates. But the other Celtics follow him, which means he’s the leader after all.

“Yeah, I would love to make every shot I take,” he said. “I know I can shoot better and I will. But at this time of the season, as long as we win and we’re trending in the right direction, I know me scoring will come.

“I’ve done that plenty of times. I just try to impact the game in other ways. And just dominate, and not be defined just as a scorer.”

3. Cavs don’t have enough 

Mazzulla claimed before tipoff Saturday that “you saw the real Cleveland in Game 2.” In fact, what we all saw was the best Cleveland that night, when most of what the Cavs did clicked against a Boston club trying to win from a big recliner.

The real Cavs were on display in Game 3. Which meant plucky, undermanned, fixated on trying to beat the Celtics at their 3-point game and neglecting all the other stuff that checks Mazzulla’s boxes for his club. Not only did Cleveland lose the battle of 3-pointers, it got outrebounded, gave up more second-chance points, failed to keep up in fast-break scoring and gave up more points in the paint.

Unlike in Game 2, when Donovan Mitchell spent a half unlocking teammates’ games, he was in scoring mode from the start. He got 33, but teammates Darius Garland and sixth man Caris LeVert needed 27 shots to chip in 30 points combined.

As for power forward Evan Mobley, the Cavs’ thin man turned an ankle during Boston’s 14-0 run to start the third quarter. He came back from the locker room to do what he could, but without fellow big man Jarrett Allen (ribs) and with Dean Wade playing limited minutes in his first appearance in two months, Mobley’s load was too great.

If he lingered near the paint, the Celtics sent center Al Horford to the perimeter. If Mobley came out, Boston drove the ball inside. Valiant as his return was, it did little to slow Boston.

4. Holiday is laughing last

Some grumpy Milwaukee Bucks diehards have tried to lick their short-postseason wounds by claiming that, well, the Damian Lillard trade didn’t sting as much because Jrue Holiday, sent off in the headline deal, hadn’t looked great this spring either.

Statistically, it was true. Holiday, who will turn 34 next month, was underwhelming through Boston’s first seven postseason games. He was shooting 36% overall and 32% from the arc, while averaging 8.1 points 4.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists.

Then he has a performance like Saturday. Holiday scored 18 points, dished five assists, grabbed a couple offensive rebounds and snuffed a half-dozen desperate Cavs’ possessions with defensive boards.

“Jrue is a dog,” Brown said. “Came in and dominated on both sides of the ball. Made timely baskets. That’s the Jrue Holiday that we know and love and played against. Tonight was just a masterclass from Jrue. What a game for him.”

Holiday has told Brown, Tatum and the other Celtics all season not to worry about carving out shots or opportunities for him.

“I’ll figure it out,” he has said.

He did in Game 3. By being a little more aggressive on offense, he made Mitchell, Cleveland’s star guard, work harder. Said Holiday: “I just thought maybe attacking him might get him even more exhausted by the third or fourth quarter.”

5. Wade returns, Allen still out

Wade’s first outing since early March was fine: five points, three boards, three assists and more than 16 minutes, with a nice plus-12 impact in the defeat.

He isn’t likely to rise up the way he did against Boston on March 8, when he scored 20 points in the fourth quarter of a stunning Cavs’ comeback. But the 6-foot-9 Wade did give coach J.B. Bickerstaff a few lineup options.

Now the Cavaliers are hoping to survive long enough for Allen to return, too. Game 4 is Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT).

* * * 

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

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.