The Celtics gave themselves a chance to steal Game 2 in Cleveland in the closing stages of the fourth quarter, but they ran into a familiar problem: LeBron James.
The four-time league MVP scored 15 of the Cavaliers’ 24 points in the final frame, doing just enough to keep a scrappy Celtics group at bay and secure a 99-91 victory for his team at Quicken Loans Arena. James finished his night with a game-high 30 points in 42 minutes of action.
Unlike in Game 1, the Celtics did an admirable job Tuesday night defending LeBron for much of the contest. Jae Crowder, Evan Turner and Marcus Smart all took turns guarding the 6-foot-8 forward, but James had his full assortment of offensive weapons to choose from in the game’s final 12 minutes. When the Celtics gave him space, he hit open jumpers. If they tightened up him on the perimeter, he made Boston pay by going to the basket.
It was a scene Celtics fans had seen their team fall victim to a number of times this decade, but head coach Brad Stevens got his first taste of it up close.
“When LeBron puts his shoulder down, he gets where he wants to go. Those guys are hard to stop,” Stevens told reporters in Cleveland.
Despite the display, Stevens was still encouraged after the game by the grit his team showed by cutting Cleveland’s lead to three points multiple times in the final frame against the league’s best.
“[LeBron’s] obviously a great competitor and the most physically talented,” Stevens said. “He’s one of the best mental players in the game. You add that together and you have a heck of a player. It’s why he’s considered the best in the game right now.
“He made those plays, but I thought for the most part, we made those guys earn everything they got. That’s a step in the right direction from Game 1. Hopefully, we can improve a little bit on those guys, but it’s the other stuff that’s being magnified, because you can’t give up offensive rebounds when you work so hard on the other stuff.”
James and star teammate Kyrie Irving (nine fourth quarter points) were the only two Cavs who put points on the scoreboard for the hosts in the final frame.
With Boston facing a 2-0 deficit as the series shifts back to Boston, Stevens will have to hope he gets a better show from his offense (38 percent shooting in Game 2) to keep pace with LeBron’s firepower. Otherwise, he seemed satisfied with how his team handled the rest of the Cavs’ explosive offense.
“We were good, but not good enough,” Stevens said. “This team will compete. I feel pretty comfortable saying that. We just need to be a little bit tighter.”
The Celtics clearly must be better, but also must hope LeBron can’t repeat this kind of clutch performance yet again in Game 3 at the Garden.