The Celtics have done it again.
Though Cleveland led for all but one and a half minutes of the first half, Boston never let the game get out of hand. The Celtics were able to mitigate an outstanding performance from LeBron James to keep the game within reach — the Cavaliers never led by more than 11 — and mount yet another comeback victory.
“We just have a group of guys that really believe in each other, and we are trying to play the right way, trying to play hard,” Al Horford said. “We’re really just buying into what Coach is telling us and have a lot of guys that have a lot of fight in them.”
With the 107-94 win, Boston maintains its perfect 9-0 record at home during the playoffs — and takes a 2-0 series lead. The teams will travel to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, where the Celtics’ youth will face its biggest tests of the season.
“The job’s not finished,” forward Marcus Morris said. “2-0 means nothing. We still have to win. We’re not complacent. We’re not happy with 2-0. We want to win this series. That’s the bottom line.”
Here’s what we learned from Game 2:
Marcus Smart ‘impacts winning.’
Marcus Smart finished with a team-high plus-minus of plus-21.
Smart led the way with four steals, five rebounds (three of which were on the offensive glass), nine assists, and 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting.
As Kevin Love noted, “he just seems to do everything out there on the floor.”
From dishing out dimes to Aron Baynes to poking for steals to sticking up for teammates, Smart did it all. In the third quarter, he made his only three of the game to give the Celtics their first lead since the opening minutes of the first quarter. Smart’s 30 minutes off the bench were as meaningful as they get.
Not only does he offer tangible contributions, but Smart also brings forth an infectious level of tenacity.
“I think he’s as tough as they come,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s a true competitor. He matches his intensity with a physical toughness. We talked about it before the game. People talk about him all the time. Sometimes they focus on things that don’t matter, and the other times they focus on that he impacts winning. We are really glad he’s on our team.”
“I enjoy playing with him every time he subs in,” Terry Rozier added. “I’m out there just like, ‘Phew.’ It’s a relief. He’s just great to have on your team because he always has your back. He’s always going to play hard and be scrappy for the ball.”
Marcus Smart ladies and gentleman. pic.twitter.com/qaWTH297tn
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) May 16, 2018
A triple-double from LeBron James is not enough for the Cavaliers.
It’s going to take more than a one-man show for Cleveland to earn the W.
The Celtics were expecting an early punch to the mouth from James — and he delivered. James scored 21 of Cleveland’s first 27 points, exceeding his point total from Game 1 after just one quarter of play.
Who knows if Game 1 was actually a “feel-out game” for the three-time NBA champion, but Game 2 certainly featured a different James. He was determined to get buckets from the jump, knocking down back-to-back-to-back three-pointers in the opening quarter. James finished with 42 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists. He shot 55.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from behind the arc.
But the Cavaliers needed more than one impressive stat line. Though Love contributed 22 points and 15 rebounds, offensive production from Cleveland’s remaining three starters was barren.
J.R. Smith, who scored only four points in Game 1, didn’t log a single point in his 27 minutes on the floor Tuesday night. He missed all seven of his field-goal attempts. Coach Tyronn Lue said he kept Smith in the game because there was hope the guard’s notoriously streaky shooting would find a rhythm.
“He’s taken big shots, made big shots for us,” Lue said. “No matter what he’s shooting in the game, we know he can get going at any point in time.”
If Smith continues to stay cold, perhaps Lue will consider giving Kyle Korver more playing time off the bench. Korver, who scored all 11 of his points in the second quarter, helped Cleveland maintain its first-half lead when James was off the floor. Outside of James and Love, he was the lone Cavalier to reach double-digit scoring.
The Cavaliers could learn something from the Celtics.
Love said it himself after the game: “I think you can actually take a lot from the Boston Celtics.”
“They had all their starters in double figures, and that comes a lot, I think, with not only Stevens putting them in the right position but their level of activity,” Love said. “They move the ball, and they continue to cut.”
Tristan Thompson made a similar observation: “They move around and get a lot of action . . . If you fall asleep or don’t do the right coverages, they try to expose that.”
The Celtics have relied on a collective effort to fuel their offense throughout the postseason, but the scoring was particularly diversified in Game 2. Six players — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Horford, Morris, and Smart — all hit double digits, with Aron Baynes just a point shy of joining the crew.
“In a lot of ways, you feel comfortable going to every one of those guys with the game on the line, and then some,” Stevens said. “Obviously we’ve gone to Tatum, we’ve gone to Morris, we’ve gone to Smart. You feel good about all of those guys as guys that can make plays in big moments.”
Beyond tallying up points, however, Love highlighted one of the keys to the Boston’s success: ball movement. Six Celtics — and only two Cavaliers — dished two or more assists in Game 2. Although the two teams have averaged roughly the same number of assists per game this postseason, Boston (304.7) is averaging over 50 more passes per game than Cleveland (247).
“I think we can definitely learn from them, and we have guys that are very capable, too, so we just need them to be themselves,” Love said.
The Celtics’ stat advantages reflect their approach.
After the lopsided outing in Game 1, several stats were very comparable between the two teams in Game 2.
Field-goal percentage: Cleveland 46.3, Boston 43.5.
Three-point percentage: Cleveland 32.3, Boston 32.3
Total rebounds: Cleveland 54, Boston 51
But the Celtics held the edge in a couple of significant categories.
Turnovers: Cleveland 15, Boston 6
Steals: Cleveland 2, Boston 8
When the Celtics have the ball, they’re taking care of it. When they don’t, they’re going after it. Their defensive switches were once again on point and their on-the-ball coverage was locked in, as hustle plays are proving to be a defining characteristic of this team.
Boston, however, was by no means perfect. The Celtics wasted four chances to build on their 11-point lead in the fourth quarter and couldn’t connect on several open opportunities. The opponent’s problems just far exceeded their own. The Cavaliers were not just lacking offensive contributors. They were also missing, put simply, effort.