The refrain we’ve heard over and over after Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the rest of the season as the playoffs approached was this: The Celtics are playing with house money. They have nothing to lose.
It would be great if they could win a round or two, get rookie Jayson Tatum some postseason exposure, then learn from that next year. That seemed to be a logical way to approach the playoffs. Only the Celtics weren’t buying in, even after they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
Now, having taken the first two games at home against LeBron James and the Cavaliers, those phrases could be invoked again. The Celtics have nothing to lose as the series shifts to Cleveland. But that’s not the way they look at it.
“The stage is set for all of us to do something spectacular,’’ said Jaylen Brown. “LeBron’s been to the finals [seven] straight times. He’s a great player, but we want to win and we want to be the team that does win and get to the finals.
“We have a bunch of young guys trying to make names for themselves in this league. Why not come out and play hard?’’
A win for the Celtics Saturday night would give them a commanding 3-0 lead and effectively squash any hopes for Cleveland. Should the Cavaliers prevail at home, they are right back in the mix, with the potential to make this a long series.
Here’s what to watch for in Game 3:
Will LeBron’s teammates show up?
The Celtics know they can’t shut down LeBron, but they can make him work for whatever points he gets. They’ve also been trying to not let the rest of the Cavaliers beat them, particularly his teammates who set up behind the three-point line and wait for open looks while LeBron draws the defense away from them. In Game 1, Cleveland was just 4 for 26 from downtown. They fared better in Game 2, connecting on 10 of 31 attempts, but that number looks less impressive if you take away LeBron’s 5 for 11 numbers on 3-pointers.
Particularly worrisome for Cavaliers fans is the play of J.R. Smith, who has just four points through two games, connecting on just two of his 16 shots.
“We’re making Bron play hero ball,’’ Smith said. “Which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference finals. We’ve got to help him.’’
Kyle Korver is averaging eight points per game, while Kevin Love has been steady at 19.5 in the first two games. If the rest of the team can’t get rolling, this could be a very short series.
How will the game be officiated?
Game 2 was barely over, when Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said in his postgame press conference that the Celtics were “gooning the game up’’. It sounded like a shot, but the entire quote painted a different picture, with Lue saying the Cavaliers need to match their intensity.
“We have to be tougher,’’ Lue said. “I think they’re playing tougher than we are. We’re seeing that. They’re being physical. They’re gooning the game up, and we have to do the same thing. We have to be tougher mentally and physically.’’
Lue clarified his comments on Thursday.
“Physicality,’’ Lue said. “Nothing bad. I like it. But physicality, hard fouls, into our body, into our airspace, and they’re just playing tough.
“It’s not a bad thing to goon it up. Like taking hard fouls and being physical. They’re playing playoff basketball. That’s all I meant by it, nothing bad.’’
Still, while the referees swallowed the whistles at times at TD Garden, it’s hard to imagine LeBron won’t get a few calls in Cleveland, perhaps resulting in Marcus Morris and others getting into foul trouble early on.
How will the Celtics play in Cleveland?
The Celtics have yet to lose at home in the playoffs, going 9-0 at the Garden. But they are just 1-4 on the road. The one win came in Game 3 of their last series at Philadelphia, a clutch overtime win over the 76ers to go up 3-0.
“We had our moments [on the road] but we weren’t as consistent as we needed to be to win more,’’ Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We’re going to have to be really focused, really locked in, really consistent. It’s even harder to communicate on the road.
“You prepare for that your whole life. All these guys played in big atmospheres before they came here. We played well on the road all year.’’
Much like Game 2, the Celtics will need to be ready to weather the early storm, as the Cavaliers should come out gunning in front of their home crowd. In Boston, it was Brown who helped keep the Celtics in the game while LeBron scored 21 points in the first quarter. They will likely need a similar effort from Brown or one of his teammates to withstand the early barrage from Cleveland. If they can, they will give themselves a chance to take a 3-0 series lead.
Time: 8:30 p.m.
TV/radio: ESPN, WBZ-FM (98.5)
Series: Celtics lead, 2-0