Moral victories are swell and all, but in the NBA playoffs eventually they all lead to the same place: Elimination.
So it stands that the initial emotion from Game 1 of the Celtics’ Eastern Conference finals showdown with LeBron James and the Cavaliers should fall somewhere between disappointment and frustration.
The Cavaliers came into TD Garden Wednesday night to take on a Celtics team that was coming off parallel highs that offered immense hope for the present and the future.
Monday, the Celtics defeated the talented Washington Wizards in Game 7 of their semifinal series to get here. Tuesday, they won the NBA Draft lottery and the right to pick presumably their next franchise cornerstone.
Heady days, right? Probably the headiest since Kevin Garnett was still reminding Celtics fans of what was possible. It was reasonable to wonder what goodness Wednesday would bring.
What it brought was a vicious reality check. The Cavaliers, getting the usual breathtaking all-around game from James (38 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists), a spectacular shooting performance from Kevin Love (32 points on 16 field-goal attempts), and a sturdy effort from habitual Celtics nuisance Tristan Thompson (20 points, 9 rebounds), collectively power-dribbled the Celtics off the parquet, 117-104.
That final score lies, by the way. Don’t be duped by the garbage-time stat-padding (see: Green, Gerald, 11 points in 13 minutes). This was a hammering, a pummeling into bleakness, a public beatdown, at least in the first half, when there was the pretense of suspense. It was a mean-spirited varsity ganging up on the jayvees.
Most of all, it was the nonpareil James reminding us that he’s somehow improved since his history-altering 45-point performance against the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, a game that effectively ended the New Big Three and any silly narratives that he couldn’t win the big one.
It turns out that James wasn’t necessarily resting during the Cavs’ long layoff after a sweep of the Raptors. He was waiting. He might have been this good on other nights, but it’s hard to believe he’s ever been better.
The message from the Cavs was clear from the get-go: The Celtics may be the No. 1 seed in the East, but only because the Cavs, so casual in the regular season, deigned not to fight them for it. They are, undoubtedly, the class of the conference until someone proves otherwise. And good luck with that.
In the first half, they hammered home the point with virtually each possession. The Cavs took a 30-19 lead after one quarter, with James scoring 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Then they got around to punching the accelerator in the second, building the lead to 26 points (57-31) before taking a 61-39 lead into the half.
None of those moral victories could be found at the midway point, which felt an awful lot like a breaking point.
Al Horford was 1 for 8 from the field and a minus-21 in the half. Avery Bradley was the Celtics’ high scorer with 11 points but didn’t tally an assist. Isaiah Thomas missed 8 of 11 shots. Kelly Olynyk did not score. Tyler Zeller was minus-7 in one minute of playing time, which seems difficult to do.
As a team, the Celtics were 2 for 16 from 3-point range. If a fan’s thoughts turned to thinking about Markelle Fultz and the No. 1 pick, well, it was better than considering the actual game.
But a mildly reassuring thing happened in the second half. No, not a comeback – the Celtics were too far gone for that. But there were reminders of their resilience, signs that perhaps they will deliver a better showing in Game 2.
Marcus Smart agitated Thompson and then agitated him again before fouling out with nine minutes left. Jaylen Brown was downright superb, finishing with 10 points, 9 rebounds, and an occasional dogged defensive stop on James. If you don’t believe in this kid by now, you must be watching “2 Broke Girls” or something when the Celtics are on. He is legit.
Despite Love going off for 18 points in the third quarter, the Celtics actually outscored the Cavs in the frame, 36-31. The Celtics closed the quarter on a 15-4 run, and even as the Cavs’ lead remained at a comfortable 17 (92-75) after three, the crowd roared in approval of the Celtics’ determination amid certain defeat.
Hey, it was something. Sometimes you have to accept the moral victories when the preferable victories are out of reach.
Maybe there’s something to be found there that Brad Stevens can use in Game 2. Maybe all that’s necessary is to shoot the ball better and keep Love and Thompson comparably under control. Maybe LeBron will retire to play baseball. Unlikely, sure. But if you’ve got any better ideas, the Celtics might be able to use them.