All of the signs for a monumental game from LeBron James were on the table: The general importance of Game 3; the first game of the series on the opposing team's home court; the perpetual calm in his postgame press conference after losing big in Game 2; three days off to rest a "hurt" elbow; annoyance at all of the talk about the elbow; the first game after a less than thrilling performance in Game 2. They were all in play, and James absolutely dominated the Celtics last night, hitting shots from practically every spot on the floor, and amassing 38 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. Behind the performance of James, the Cavaliers rolled past the Celtics in Game 3, 124-95.
He struck early and often, tallying 21 of his 38 points in the first frame, helping to give Cleveland a 36-17 lead. But these Celtics have been schooled by the superstars before. Dwyane Wade torched the Celtics in Game 4 of the first round, and helped Miami off to a 31-14 start at one point. The difference is, against Wade and the Heat, a comeback was not only hoped for, but expected. The C's just needed to weather the storm and then mount a run. While they eventually went on to lose Game 4 of that series, it wasn't before they caught up with the Heat, took control at one point, and eventually squandered their own lead.
Against the Cavaliers last night, even with three quarters left to play, a comeback wasn't anticipated, largely due to the type and volume of shots LeBron was knocking down.
The one knock on LeBron has always been that jump shot of his. Defensive strategy after defensive strategy was devised to make him a jump shooter, since doing so was often a team's best shot at slowing down his production. It really is the best course of action, as his abilities to finish around the rim and draw fouls are two of the strongest components of his overall game.
And slowly, season after season, that jump shot got better, and better, and better. And while he's still not a "great" shooter, he's a darn good one, and when he's consistently knocking them down from outside over the course of a game, you really are at his mercy. Just ask the Celtics, who endured such a scenario last night. James unleashed a personal blitzkrieg from the perimeter, with eight of his 14 made field goals coming on jump shots from 16+ feet away from the rim. Some came in transition, some came off the dribble, and some came off of screen/roll action. All the while, the one thing they had in common was they were not to be stopped by Paul Pierce or any other defender Boston threw at him. While all five starters for Cleveland scored in double figures, it was largely the play of James, and Antawn Jamison to an extent, which gave the Cavaliers the edge.
The Celtics woke up this morning in a troublesome position. They find themselves in a 2-1 series hole, are coming off of a very dispiriting loss, and are still up against a team with arguably the league's best player, who just proved he's perfectly capable of taking over a ball game. And while the Cavs can rely on one man, the Celtics, even with Rajon Rondo cementing himself as one of the league's best, do not have such a luxury. The Celtics will need to play team-oriented basketball for the rest of this series, if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Is tomorrow afternoon's game a "must-win"? Well, technically not, but the odds of overcoming a 3-1 series deficit are rather slim, as are the odds of winning three straight games against the Cavs, especially considering two of those wins would have to come in Cleveland. Put it this way: The Celtics wouldn't be doing themselves any favors by losing tomorrow afternoon.
So what exactly will it take? Well, defense, obviously. While the Cavaliers were indeed firing on all cylinders last night, the Celtics appeared to lack that scrappy mindset on the defensive end, which was rather prevalent back in Ohio. When times grew tough last night, the C's failed to respond in a gritty, physical, aggressive manner - the type of mindset that needs to be utilized against LeBron and his fellows.
It will also take Paul Pierce. Going off of past playoff performances, his exhibition last night was probably one of his worst in recent memory. The jump shot was off, the drives failed to end in baskets or fouls, and there didn't appear to be any of that passion that you expect out of him. Remember when he fed Rasheed Wallace for that dunk in the second half of Game 2, and followed it up with that passionate, appreciative yell? Yeah, there was none of that last night.
Personally, I think the three days off did much more harm than good for the Celtics. To me, the significance of the series seemed to dissipate, and the Celtics steadily lost the edge that they had gained with their vital Game 2 victory. It was if the series had started over last night, with the two games in Cleveland stuck in the background as distant memories, part of some other, unrelated affair. And without that edge, the Celtics were an empty glass, and LeBron James was a baseball bat. By the time the C's had finished crumbling minutes into the third quarter, they had no hope of putting themselves back together again.
Above all, it's time for these Celtics to undergo a fair amount of introspection to determine what they are made of. For one long look in the mirror could go a long way in determining just how much longer they are in this postseason. The seven to nine guys cracking the rotation all need to fill their roles, and fill them well. Rondo needs to be distributing and dictating the tempo; Ray Allen needs to shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot some more; Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins need to be much more assertive on the glass (30 total rebounds for the Celtics last night), all while standing tall as the two pillars who hold up the roof of the Celtics' team defense; Pierce needs to be aggressive; a considerable amount of hustle must be unleashed by Glen Davis, and a few points wouldn't hurt, either; Tony Allen needs to find a way to make an impact, whether it be defensively, or in transition as Rondo's wingman; and yes, the Celtics need Rasheed Wallace. They more than likely will not survive another nothing game from him.
At no point this season were the Celtics defined by just one player. They have a slew of great ones, but the formula called for them to work as a collective unit, with that enviable balance between them working as an underrated advantage. While certain players were labeled as the keys to this series prior to its commencement, it has become quite clear that the unit as a whole has to play well in order for the Celtics to win. It's not just Rondo, or Ray, or Pierce, or Garnett. It's all of them, collectively. And with the season perhaps hanging in the balance, at no time will that be more true than tomorrow afternoon.