By MyFM's Jake Archer - Even after the Celtics beat down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1, people were still doubting them. "It's just one game," some said. "LeBron historically doesn't win in Game 1," others cried. Well alright, that's perfectly fine. Let's just see how Game 2 plays out and then we can decide what we really think of this series moving forward.
To be honest, I was a bit worried about LeBron myself. I knew the Celtics really had to protect home court and I also knew James would come out swinging early. He certainly did, as his first quarter was nearly perfect after he opened it up with a turnover. LeBron scored 21 of his team's 27 points in the first quarter, tying a playoff career high for points in a quarter. He was already having a better output than in Game 1 and he was taking it upon himself to try to do it all. It looked like he wasn't going to be denied all night long as he knocked down shot after shot, but the question was whether or not his teammates would step up along with him.
Tristan Thompson, who was getting the start for Cleveland in place of Kyle Korver (Ty Lue was already making an adjustment to go big) helped to give the Cavs an early boost with his defense on Al Horford down low. Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier seemed pretty quiet early for Boston yet the Celtics were somehow staying within striking distance. All they needed was the momentum to somehow shift.
With just under four minutes left to play in the half, LeBron collided with Tatum and hit his head on the rookie's shoulder. James walked off the court and into the locker room while many speculated on if he had sustained a concussion. Minutes later, he checked back in as Boston was making a run to cut the lead before the break. James was apparently diagnosed with a neck sprain, so he had dodged a bullet, but something in the game had shifted towards the Celtics. At the half, Boston only trailed 55-48 and they knew they could win the contest.
Out of halftime, the Celtics took control. LeBron's tenacity was gone and the outburst in the first quarter seemed like an eternity ago. Boston ramped it up and put enough pressure on the Cavs to make them tap out. After outscoring them 36-22 in the third, the C's took a 84-77 lead into the final quarter of play. Once again, LeBron seemed out of it and Cleveland packed it in early. I've honestly never seen a less impactful great game from a superstar. You can't take away that he played well, but it really didn't even seem like he did enough when he probably could've.
Late in the fourth, a frustrated JR Smith made a dirty play by pushing Al Horford while he was in mid-air attempting a layup and tempers flared. Marcus Smart (who was all over the place making winning plays) took exception to the move by Smith and got up in his face. The two had to be seperated but again, it spoke to really a larger theme in this series. The Celtics are not just better, they are tougher and they are more of a team. While Smart is sticking up for his teammate, the Cavs are being passive-aggressive and pointing fingers all night long. Even the ESPN telecast (which you would think would be pro-Cavaliers) remarked on how disjointed the Cavaliers are mentally and how they pale in comparison to the Celtics for what winners look like.
So in the end, Boston walked away with a Game 2 win and they had protected the parquet. They had all of their starters (Tatum, Rozier, Horford, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris) plus Smart scoring in double figures. Brown led the way with 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal. He became the first player in NBA history with 20+ points and 5+ rebounds in back-to-back conference finals games at 21 years old or younger. Right now he's on pace to break the record for points per game in a conference finals by a player younger than 22. He's averaging 23 while the record is held by Kobe Bryant, who scored 20.4. He and Rozier outscored the starting guards for the Cavs (George Hill and Smith) 41-3.
It's wild because the Celtics young players really feel that they belong and aren't scared of LeBron. Every night someone new is stepping up and bringing something different to the table to help them win. They've played so well that now people are actually saying the team might be worse off with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward (which is the dumbest take I've ever heard). Seriously though, look up what they are doing right now and you'll be blown away by the records they are breaking and the company they are being mentioned in.
On the Cavs side, LeBron scored a game-high 42 points, grabbed ten boards, dished out 12 assists and had one block. It seems stupid, but it was the quietest, softest triple-double (his third 40-point triple double in the postseason, good for most ever) I've ever seen. He finished with a -9 plus/minus and the only positive Cavaliers were Cedi Osman and Jose Calderon (playing in garbage time). Kevin Love played a decent game, but he's fallen so, so far from what he once was. Finally Kyle Korver was the third and last Cleveland player to score in double figures, but it wasn't enough. Ante Zizic and Jordan Clarkson didn't see the floor, but every single Celtic did.
Postgame, Ty Lue was accusing the Celtics of "gooning the game up" which I don't understand considering his player was the one pulling out cheap shots late. To JR's credit, he took responsibility for the push and said he agreed with the fact that he was hit with a flagrant foul and a technical. Meanwhile, the Celtics just kept preaching "team ball" and "just win." This young team is being conditioned to be just that, a team, and the culture Brad Stevens has created is amazing. Even Cavs players are taking notice and saying how well the Celtics are run and how they could learn something from them about toughness.
After taking a punch from LeBron and overcoming it, the Celtics head to Game 3 with a nice lead and most people feeling that they'll win the series. We've got games to be played, and we should expect James to make another push at home back in Cleveland. They say a series doesn't start until a road team wins which is a dumb cliche but it's pretty true at the same time. Boston is perfect at home but will need to steal one of the next two on the road. Their balanced attack should get the job done, but it's not time to look ahead to the Finals just yet. Game 3 is on Saturday (c'mon NBA schedule makers, I need more basketball) and tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. in Cleveland. Come back here for the recap!