A few thoughts on the Cavs’ clobbering of the Celtics while wondering if Marcus Smart actually thinks of himself as a good shooter . . .
It’s not surprising that the Celtics lost Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavaliers were playing their first home game of the series, with the best player in the world on their side and agitated, trailing 2-0 in the series.
A loss would have been the prologue to the end. Game 3 meant more to the Cavs, and that’s understandable.
What is surprising is the Celtics played like it didn’t matter much to them at all.
The Celtics fell behind, 20-4, trailed after the first quarter, 32-17, and never could get close enough to muster even a hint of suspense. They were down 20 at the half (61-41), 24 after three (87-63), and lost by 30 (116-86), the Cavs’ largest lead of the game.
Pick your spot when resignation settled in, but it came sometime before coach Brad Stevens sent out of a white-flag lineup of Marcus Smart, Abdel Nader, Semi Ojeleye, Guerschon Yabusele, and Greg Monroe with 6 minutes 49 seconds left and the Cavs up, 104-74.
The road struggles are nothing new for these Celtics. They’re 9-0 at home this season, outscoring opponents by a total of 102 points. On the road, they’re 1-5, having been outscored by 75 points.
But at least there have been competitive, compelling stretches in those games, rallies to put a scare into the home team, feisty moments, prolonged runs, resilience.
Saturday night, the Celtics were finished from the start, and boring to watch from the first minute through the 48th.
“We can’t play the way we played tonight,’’ Stevens said. “If we played that way at home, we would have been beat.’’
This isn’t a suggestion that they’re infected with indifference. We know who they are. There are usually few traces of quit in this group, and that’s worth remembering now.
Their story, so far this season, is a remarkably satisfying one.
This Celtics team, down two superstars, has had enough season-long fight in them to come here to Cleveland — the scene of Gordon Hayward’s injury on opening night, when all high hopes appeared to be shattered — with a two-game lead a series that few but themselves believed they would reach.
They made comeback after comeback — whether from a double-digit deficit in a game or from injuries that rated from inconvenient to devastating — all season long.
That’s why Saturday night’s loss was so frustrating. They looked nothing like the team Celtics fans have come to trust and admire, no matter the circumstances. They appeared to have left their fight back in Boston.
Stevens acknowledged that he never really saw an inkling of a comeback.
“I felt it as less likely based on how both teams were playing,’’ he said. “They played with more connectivity. But I never doubt our guys. They’re very resilient.’’
The Celtics need to find themselves for Game 4 Monday, and despite the lingering, discouraging memory of the hideous most recent performance, I expect they will.
They’re adept at bouncing back. Splitting the two games here qualifies as a successful trip. It’s still possible.
Quitters? No. But scattershot, disengaged, and overwhelmed basketball players Saturday night? That’s what they were.
The Celtics had better play a whole lot better in their 98th game of the season than they did in their 97th — because if they don’t, we’ll have no choice but to wonder whether they’re who we thought they were.
With the series shifting to Cleveland for Game 3, a decline in performance from some Celtics stalwarts in Games 1 and 2 was expected.
And it figured that Cleveland’s assorted underperformers in Boston would be roused by the never-ending noise at Quicken Loans Arena, which has the vibe of an “America’s Got Talent’’ audition with a basketball game as the sideshow.
But the change in venues’ effect on several players’ change in performance was drastic even if you expected it.
Several members of LeBron James’s erratic supporting cast played their best games of the series. George Hill, who was pretty much invisible in Boston, scored 13 points — 11 in the first quarter. J.R. Smith, the ultimate frontrunner, hit three 3-pointers and preened after each one. Larry Nance Jr. and Kyle Korver combined to make all 9 of their shots, with Korver hitting all 4 of his 3-point attempts. Jeff Green had two baskets.
Meanwhile, the Celtics reverted to the worst basketball version of themselves. Jaylen Brown scored just 10 points and looked rattled when the Cavs immediately applied their defensive focus on him to start the game. Al Horford took just 4 shots. Terry Rozier made just 5 of 12 shots and rarely made a play for a teammate. (As much as a revelation as he has been, he frequently misses open teammates rolling to the hoop.) Smart shot 2 of 9, and like Rozier and Brown, took too many pull-ups and long 2-point shots. Marcus Morris was 2 of 8 and his reputation as a premier LeBron defender took on a few dents.
I suppose I should end this by giving James some credit here. When he’s at his best, he’s better than anyone who has ever played, capable of breaking an opponent’s spirit practically singlehandedly. He has a way of making an opponent look indifferent.
He certainly was at his best Saturday, with a stat line of 27 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals that is impressive and yet doesn’t do the performance justice. If you told me the stat crew was asleep at the wheel and his numbers were actually twice those listed in the box score, I might believe you.
He controlled the game with the skill and meanness of Michael Jordan and the passing wizardry of Magic Johnson. James delivered at least four passes that would be on the career highlight film of a lesser player.
It’s not the best he’s ever played against the Celtics. His 45-point, 15-rebound, it’s-my-world-now performance in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference is first. And he wasn’t shabby in the first quarter of Game 2 back in Boston, scoring 21 points while his supporting cast looked on admirably.
But this, this was a well-rounded masterpiece. Only the greatest punish their opponents to the point of resignation. James did that Saturday night. Here’s hoping he thinks Game 4 is a road game.