We didn’t have the drama that might’ve come from Isaiah Thomas playing his second game back from injury, and with his new team, in the Garden, but c’mon: A matchup between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers needs no storylines to compel and entertain. And even accounting for the Cavs being on a back-to-back, the Cs absolutely smoked them.
THE GAME FLOW
Big surprise: The offense got going right away in this one, on the backs of the marquee stars. LeBron James drew first blood on one his signature unstoppable drives. Kyrie Irving answered with a jumper that could’ve been a three-point play save for a rare miss from the stripe. No way this contest would played out as anything but a shootout.
[Note: At this point, the cable shit the bed, because Boston is currently beset by the beginnings of a colossal storm, and I had to switched to a less reputable source. The things I do for love.]
Boston not only stayed even with Cleveland but pulled ahead, despite missing all of their attempted treys. We’ve seen the movie of the Cavaliers playing possum or playing bored too many times to get comfortable, but since they were on the tail end of a back-to-back, their general discombobulation seemed plausible.
LeBron was his usual self, but Kevin Love couldn’t buy a shot from deep or the post and Jae Crowder didn’t look comfortable (he played fairly well vs. the Blazers last night, for what it’s worth). Thus, the Cavs first-quarter offense was mostly Bron and the eternally overrated but still solid Tristan Thompson, while the Cs had multiple weapons—the entire starting lineup of Kyrie, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris, but also Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, who were dead-eyed. Rozier scored 8 points in 3 minutes, his initial attack highlighted by consecutive treys.
If the Celtics offense hummed like that the whole game and the Cavaliers defense remained sieve-adjacent (as it generally has been for the franchise’s tenure under head coach Tyronn Lue, particularly every game played in 2017) this would get ugly fast. But I can’t stress enough—as a great someone on The Wire once said—that you don’t dance on the grave of a LeBron team until you’re sure the motherfuckers are dead.
The Cs’ torrid shooting carried into the next frame, reaching corona heat levels from deep. Daniel Theis joined the scoring party with consecutive treys of his own, as the component parts of the offense bobbed and weaved around confused-looking Cavs. Horford, undeniably irked as hell by past brutalizations from Cleveland during his time as an Atlanta Hawk, seemed determined to prove himself as a rebounder: While not Drummondesque by any means, he got valuable second chances for the team from the offensive glass. He also played some bonafide bully-ball, which isn’t often in his finesse-driven repertoire, but that oop dunk from Kyrie’s alley near the halfway point was SAVAGE.
LeBron shot almost perfectly, but his only real help, other than the aforementioned Thompson, was veteran sniper Kyle Korver and the unsustainable joy of J.R. Smith. The Celtics kept themselves together despite the Bron pressure and clearly established themselves as the better—not luckier—team as of halftime, with a 55-47 lead that Rozier punctuated with a transition-steal-turned-jam. [Also, my cable is back!]
The third quarter went from slightly uncomfortable to brutal for the Cavaliers in what seemed uncommonly quick for a team that, weak/uncommitted defense or no, is unquestionably still the squad to beat in the Eastern Conference. And the Cs did this with few Kyrie pyrotechnics. He cooled down after a solid first frame and had only 11 points about halfway through Q3, although he grabbed 9 rebounds and played old-school point guard extremely well. The Celtics nonetheless came to a double-digit lead in less than three minutes. By around 6:00 in the quarter, the lead ballooned to 20.
It didn’t stay there for that long, yet remained around the high teens. SMARF, Rozier, Horford and Tatum all came out blazing (despite quiet first halves for the latter two), as the weight of carrying an underperforming team on his back began to take its toll on LeBron. He couldn’t score all the points and try to keep up defensively against Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the former of whom threw down arguably his best dunk of the season thanks to a steal and pass from Al.
The ineffectiveness of Kevin Love (1-11 shooting) really sealed this game’s fate. Lacking real backcourt play also hurt: Korver is a one-trick pony at his age, Jose Calderon and Dwyane Wade are corpses bordering on complete uselessness, Iman Shumpert and Derrick Rose are injured (and sorta corpse-ish), and I.T. isn’t ready for back-to-backs yet. Not much for Cleveland to do. It began to look like LeBron might—might—write this one off as the fourth started. (If I was him, I’d think, “Why kill myself crawling out of a deficit?”)
But whatever desire he might’ve had to win, the united offense and stifling defense of the Celtics didn’t let up even as the game reached into its final five minutes. This game mattered one hell of a lot for Boston, who had everything to prove and aimed to prove it. With about 4:00 to go, Brad Stevens took Kyrie out in favor of Rozier, who reached the 20-point mark and remained every bit on fire as he had from the start. Not long after, Lue took out LeBron and the bench mobs finished out the contest with a decidedly lopsided 102-88 victory.
[Shouts to reader Curt Hays, who politely pointed out an embarrassing—if rather amusing, in retrospect—typo of mine. It was a misspelling of a word from the phrase “LeBron shot almost perfectly;” extrapolate from there.]
HOT ISH: A determined game of team basketball on both ends of the floor.
NOT ISH: Watching Jae Crowder play poorly, name on his jersey be damned; 15 turnovers for the game; the Cs bigs still having trouble with even a shot-challenged Kevin Love (albeit less so than in past confrontations).
BENCH MOB TEAMWORK = RIM DESTRUCTION.
Before the half, Smart stole a Cavs inbound pass and found Rozier for the easy slam! 💪 https://t.co/3woEmJl9vU
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 4, 2018
MOAR DUNKING, YOU SAY???
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) January 4, 2018
Boston will always love you, I.T. Long live the King in the Fourth.
— NBA (@NBA) January 4, 2018