As soon as LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland last summer, the Cavaliers were vaulted into the title discussion, despite the fact that they had a first-year NBA head coach and a dearth of inexperienced players surrounding him. That’s just what happens when you have the best player in the world on your team.
In Game 2 of Cleveland’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, James reminded people––as if this regular season wasn’t enough––why he’s the type of player who can change the discussion like that overnight.
James poured in 30 points, including 17 of the Cavs’ last 28, and added nine rebounds, seven assists and two blocks in leading his team to a 2-0 series lead over the Celtics thanks to a 99-91 victory. Boston led for almost the entire first half, and like Game 1, continued to make runs throughout the game. However, the Celtics’ team defense was simply overmatched by James down the stretch. He’s used to putting together stretch runs like this during the playoffs. Compared to the likes of Paul George/Roy Hibbert or Kawhi Leonard/Tim Duncan, an Evan Turner/Tyler Zeller pick-and-roll defensive combo feels like the closest thing to a “path of least resistance” that James will ever encounter in April.
With six of his team’s 18 turnovers, James was by no means perfect, however, and neither were the Cavs. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe pointed out on Twitter, the Cavs have clearly been relaxing for prolonged stretches during games. They haven’t shown much urgency in pushing the ball up the floor, and in Game 2, their half-court sets were filled with too much dribbling and ending in too many bricky long jumpers.
Unfortunately for Boston, the Celtics have been unable to take advantage of these stretches, and for the second time in two games, failed to take the lead at any point during the second half. Brad Stevens’s group couldn’t get into a rhythm on offense, partially because Timofey Mozgov spent the first half scaring them away from the rim. Still, the Celtics have to find a way to take advantage of the moments when the Cavaliers are complacent, as that’s their only chance of beating this team that’s simply turning it on when it feels like it right now.
Case in point:
This Love-to-LeBron-to-Irving-to-LeBron passing display/alley-oop. – When Cleveland wants to get things going, this is the type of stuff they can do. In the first eight minutes of the third quarter, the Cavs scored 22 points and moved the ball beautifully, not just in the half-court, but on the break as well, resulting in beautiful, court-length quick strikes like this one:
Or the half-court, reverse alley-oop from James to Love that directly preceded it:
These moments made it a bit obvious when the Cavs and James were stepping on the gas and putting their mind to pushing and moving the ball.
James was the key to the Cavs’ sustained ball movement, which seems like a pretty good measure of how dialed-in this team is at any given moment. After he left the game with 4:03 left in the third, the Cavs had two points the rest of the quarter.
It’s official: the Celtics are a playoff dog. – With about three minutes left to go in the game and the Celtics down just four, Avery Bradley put together a strong defensive possession on Kyrie Irving and forced the Cavs guard into a tough fadeaway jumper, seemingly about to give his team an opportunity to make it a one-possession game. Instead, Bradley was whistled for a foul, and Irving hit both free throws to extend Cleveland’s lead back to six. It was a tough break, and Boston never got that close again.
This is what happens when you’re an underdog in the playoffs, and it’s the type of garbage that lower-seeded teams must battle through. It’s not fair, but them’s the breaks. You gotta prove you belong, and Boston missed a decent chance to steal a game from a semi-sleeping Cavs squad on a night that J.R. Smith and Kevin Love missed a ton of threes––Cleveland’s bread and butter during the second-half of the season. If the Celtics even want to take a game at home, they’re going to have to make Cleveland work much harder on both ends than they did in Game 2.