LeBron James carved through the Celtics’ defense time and again on Wednesday. (AP)
LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas each took pains on Tuesday to make sure we all knew that neither the Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Boston Celtics considered Wednesday night’s matchup between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference to be anything more than “just another game.”
Just one out of 82, even with the two teams entering with identical 50-27 records, and their final meeting of the regular season likely to determine which one would enter the playoffs as the East’s No. 1 seed, and which would finish second. Nothing special at all. No, sir.
Well, as it turns out, LeBron was lying.
After a relatively listless opening from both teams, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player grabbed control of the proceedings with both hands in the second quarter and never let it go. James scored 15 of his game-high 36 points in the second, kickstarting a massive run that knocked the Celtics on their heels, took the air out of TD Garden, and sent the Cavs on their way to a 114-91 blowout.
“Just push the tempo,” James said when ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked him to explain what changed in that second quarter. “First of all, we got stops. This is a good shooting team, but we held them under their averages. That allowed us to get out, and I got in transition, got some early buckets, got my guys into the paint as well, and it helped us a lot.”
With the win, Cleveland improves to 51-27 and drops Boston to 50-28, taking a one-game edge in the race for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference with just four games remaining. On top of that, the Cavs also clinched a 3-1 win in their head-to-head season series with the C’s, ensuring that if the two teams finish with the same record, Cleveland will still retain home-court advantage.
Through 12 minutes, you almost believed all that “just another game” talk. The two teams combined to shoot 15-for-48 from the field and 3-for-19 from 3-point range in the first quarter. Only Thomas, Boston’s relentless high-scoring spark plug, seemed to really be raring to go in the opening frame, scoring 12 first-quarter points to stake the Celtics to a 20-19 lead heading into the second.
And then Thomas sat down, and LeBron didn’t. And the Cavaliers woke up, and things changed very, very drastically.
Both teams opened the second quarter small, with Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko up front for Boston, flanked by rookie swingman Jaylen Brown alongside guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. The Cavs answered with the kind of floor-spacing lineup with which they can give opponents fits — James as ostensible point-center, joined by Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert and Deron Williams — and promptly began to torch the Celtics’ defense.
Boston couldn’t stop the ball, as James time and again got into the paint to generate high-value looks. Cleveland attempted four layups, three dunks, two 3-pointers and a 4-foot jumper in the first 4 1/2 minutes of the second quarter, ripping off an 18-4 run that tilted the game. And then, with just over seven minutes remaining in the first half, LeBron officially put his stamp on this game, barrelling through the heart of the Boston defense for a dunk on one end before completely erasing Smart’s layup attempt on the other:
A driving bank shot on the ensuing trip put Cleveland up by 17 and all but drained the life out of the Garden. This was not the kind of playoff atmosphere the newly contending Celtics and their fans had hoped for; rather, it was one the Celtics and their fans remember all too well.
Lebron blocks IT, Kevin Love behind the back outlet leads to JR Smith slam https://t.co/pRKzKNpIBA #NBA— All Ball (@allballapp) April 6, 2017
This is the worst the Celtics have looked in a long, long time. Minimal effort. Bad defense. Poor decision making. #Yikes.— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) April 6, 2017
The Celtics briefly made a run to get the deficit down to nine on an Al Horford 3-pointer with 2:13 left in the second. But the Cavs closed the half strong, riding a steady stream of drives to the rim and free throws to a 57-42 halftime lead, and Boston would never again seriously threaten. As Cleveland kept bombing away in the third quarter, pushing the lead as high as 29, the only thing that could stop them was head coach Tyronn Lue:
ty lue just called a timeout on a fast break right before kevin love hits a wide open three. why? pic.twitter.com/t9MClnjiwX— nbaayy (@nbaayy) April 6, 2017
It was that kind of night.
James made 14 of his 22 field-goal attempts in the contest, pulled down 10 rebounds, dished six assists and blocked two shots in 38 1/2 minutes. Kyrie Irving added 19 points on 7-for-18 shooting with five assists, while Kevin Love chipped in a double-double with 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting and 16 rebounds.
Channing Frye, who got the start in place of the injured Tristan Thompson, added 10 points, eight rebounds, two steals, an assist and — I am not kidding — a pretty darn big putback dunk:
… for the Cavs, who have now won four straight.
“You know, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re headed in the right direction,” James told Salters.
Thomas led the way for Boston with 26 points on 9-for-19 shooting to go with six assists and four rebounds in 33 minutes. But the Celtics as a team shot just 40.7 percent from the field in the game and missed 26 of their 33 long-distance attempts, as Thomas’ fellow backcourt igniters just couldn’t find the bottom of the net:
Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart are a combined 2-of-16 (1-7 3P) and a -24 and -21, respectively.— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) April 6, 2017
More than that, Boston had no answers defensively in the second and third quarters for a Cavs attack featuring shooters all over the floor and LeBron at the controls, alternating between picking out passes, bulling his way to the rim and calmly splashing jumpers.
Boston entered Wednesday on two days of rest after knocking off the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The Cavs came to town on the back end of a back-to-back after having gone to a double-overtime on Sunday. And yet Cleveland looked throughout to be the fresher, more aggressive, more assertive team, imposing their will from the start of the second quarter on and never looking back.
Isaiah Thomas' face says it all pic.twitter.com/X5Ugy5ZvIR— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 6, 2017
It was a stellar performance by LeBron and the Cavs, one that offered a reminder and a corrective after weeks of justified hand-wringing over defensive struggles and uninspired play. The message: in the East, the road to the NBA Finals still goes through Cleveland. The King’s not planning to abdicate his throne.