Boston, MA — We’ve seen this before on two separate occasions.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on the outside looking in, only for James, the hero of the story, to lead his team back to the promised land. He did it in 2007 to lead the Cavs to their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, then again in 2016, recovering from a 3-1 deficit to win the franchise’s first-ever championship.
If the Boston Celtics have anything to say about it, LeBron will have his work cut out for him to do it again. Despite notching his third 40-point triple-double of this postseason (42 pts, 10 reb, 12 ast), he got virtually no help from the rest of his teammates, as Jaylen Brown (23 pts, 7 reb) and the Celtics mudhole stomped the Cavs in a 107-94 win to give them a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As we like to do, let’s go over the three main points of the game and see why the Cavs’ chances of a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance might be in trouble.
1) GREATNESS CAN ONLY GO SO FAR
One thing a lot of people are pointing out is how tired LeBron James is looking. And to be fair, we can’t blame them for their observations.
James played all 82 games this season for the first time in his 15-year career. He also averaged a career-high in minutes with 36.9 a game and has stepped that up to 41 a game this postseason. To top that off, James is leading his team in every main offensive and defensive category except for total rebounds per game (even then, he only trails by 0.7). I’m willing to bet money that you didn’t know that Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, at 14.9 and 10.1 points per game, are the second and third-leading scorers.
Think about these stats: James is leading in scoring by nearly 18 points a game, leading in minutes by almost seven, and leading in assists (remember, he’s a small forward) by the same amount. So where was the rest of his team tonight sans Love (22 pts) and Korver (11 pts)? J.R. Smith? 27 minutes, zero points. George Hill? 33 minutes, three points and one assist. Tristan Thompson? 30 minutes, eight points and seven rebounds.
This is supposed to be the support crew for James, the team that he is supposed to be able to lean on so he can rest and prepare for the long haul. And in this series, James hasn’t been able to do that. While he had an uncharacteristic off-night in the opening game, Boston was content to let James be his usual self and dare the rest of the Cavs to win the game. If Boston sticks to this strategy, James could average a 60-point triple double and Cleveland might still get swept.
2) THE YOUNG GUNS ARE PUTTING IN WORK
The young trio of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier are giving the city of Boston a much-appreciated shot of adrenaline. With a combined five season of experience between the three, they are among the biggest reasons why the Celtics and head coach Brad Stevens didn’t sweat when Kyrie Irving went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Brown (17.4 ppg, 42 percent 3-ptr), Rozier (17.4 ppg) and Tatum (18.6 ppg) combined for 52 of the team’s 104 points, providing the scoring spark that the team depends on. Marcus Smart, he of only 24 years old, has proven to be a defensive hawk this postseason, as he’s been asked to play lockdown on EVERYBODY. Smart has responded well, as he is averaging 2.5 steals per game against Cleveland so far, and on Tuesday night had four to go along with his 11 points, nine assists and five rebounds.
Boston, from a skeptic’s point of view, shouldn’t have made it this far in the postseason. Heck, most media outlets had the Philadelphia 76ers as the overwhelming favorite in the semifinals. But it is the belief that head coach Brad Stevens had in these young men that have gotten them this far even with no noticeable superstars. If the Celtics manage to stay ahead and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals, we may be looking at the next big superstar trio.
3) NO DEFENSE
It’s easy to blame the lack of Cleveland’s success on a (mostly) lack of team solidarity. And one wouldn’t fault you if you watched how little energy they are putting out there.
But the more significant issue we are seeing from them is the lack of a defensive presence. This has been pointed out by multiple experts all season, so this isn’t a surprise. However, that the lack of one would be so heavily exploited in these conference finals is a telling sign of the trouble that is to come if it doesn’t get corrected.
The Cavs had five blocks, none of them coming from their frontcourt of Larry Nance, Jr., Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. They also only had two steals, both coming from Nance. As we noted above, Marcus Smart by himself had more steals than the entire Cavs squad. The Boston frontcourt of Al Horford and Marcus Morris are making the Cavs pay on the inside paint, and besides Love’s defensive rebounding, the Cavs don’t have anyone on the interior that scares Boston.
And even LeBron James, who has looked immortal most of this postseason, has been made to look like a mere human against Boston. His defense has been lackluster at best, though most of that has been attributed to him having to basically carry the offensive load.
Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals will be on Saturday at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the Cavs better have the game of their life, otherwise, it might be the beginning of the end for their postseason chances.