BOSTON – Brad Stevens sent everyone he had at LeBron James. No matter who it was or how well they handled the first, second, or even third move, LeBron scored relentlessly.
Out of the gate, the speed, athleticism, and power was on a different level for the Celtics, who floundered in the first quarter and only found their footing on occasion. The Cavs routed them from start to finish to win Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals 117-104.
This was beyond a show of force for Cleveland. It was a dismantling of the Celtics’ core identity. Boston operated in a straight jacket in the first half, unable to even execute Isaiah Thomas pick-and-rolls out of fear that he would be smothered into submission.
“Our main objective was to make it physical on Isaiah and take him out,” Lue said when CelticsBlog asked about Cleveland’s blitzes. “When you try to do that, you’re gonna give up something.”
Boston had brief runs when their shots actually fell and they got out into some semblance of consistent transition. But LeBron or Love was always there to neutralize, combining for 70 points and 21 rebounds.
While the Celtics assisted on 33 of their 41 field goals, Cleveland beat them to the line with 28 free throws to just 10 for Boston. The Celtics’ biggest challenge in the first half was figuring out how to stop LeBron from getting to the rim. Icing screens rarely worked. Switches often came at the expense of timing, speed or power. When a big would switch onto him, LeBron would back out to 30 feet, rev his engine and explode through as many defenders as it took.
LeBron sees Kelly Olynyk on him— LeRob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) May 18, 2017
LeBron turns his back to Olynyk
LeBron dribbles ball through legs
LeBron leaves Olynyk in dust
“He was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us, no matter who was on him,” Stevens said of LeBron.
While the Celtics never shied away from contesting him, it just simply never worked. Even when they got into early position, LeBron would jump over, step around or barrel through the human speed bump.
The Celtics threw eight different defenders at LeBron: Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Kelly Olynyk, Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas, Gerald Greenm and Jaylen Brown. He scored on every single one of them.
“I pretty much know how many guys I’m going to see throughout the course of a game,” LeBron said. “I know the guy that’s going to start on me. I know the guy that’s going to shift onto me if a sub happens or if they go small or if they go big.”
For James, he is less concerned with who is in front of him and more focused on how he can get around or through them.
“It’s not an individual matchup for me, no matter who’s in front of me,” he said. “My mind is always racing on how I can make this the best possession at that particular time.”
Sometimes, the best outcome for the possession is to destroy. Poor Isaiah Thomas, who was almost completely taken out of rhythm by the Cavs perimeter defense, nearly got baptized by the King in transition.
Isaiah Thomas attempting to block LeBron's dunk is a severe mismatch but props all day pic.twitter.com/Ken4gN8pti— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) May 18, 2017
The Cavs’ constant pressure on offense took the Celtics out of their game and messed with their ability to execute on offense.
“I thought — you never want this to happen — but I felt like that zapped us on the other end a little bit,” Stevens said. “You know, we missed some makeable opportunities. They did a great job of attacking the paint, and it was clear that those guys had really emphasized that.”
And then there was Kevin Love, who has his best playoff game of his career. He dropped 32 points in 34 minutes on 6-for-9 deep shooting along with 12 boards. He was a menace underneath, but did his biggest damage as a weak side sniper.
Love broke in early underneath, fighting for position on the glass and scoring in traffic. That eventually opened up his three ball, which always came just when the Cavs needed it.
“Just knowing from over the last three years, when he starts inside-out, that’s when his three ball gets going,” Lue said.
There was a crucial moment in the third quarter where the Celtics went to a zone to try to stop dribble penetration. But the Cavs were able to pass through it to get Love two weak side elbow threes in a row.
The Celtics would chip away here or there, but never got alarmingly close until garbage time in the final few minutes, where they nearly brought it to single digits. But a Derrick Williams three with a minute and a half left pushed them away and Channing Frye’s three on the next possession put it to bed.
James and Love ended up becoming the first teammates to each drop 30 in the Garden since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor did it for the Lakers in 1966, per ESPN.
It was a disastrous night that took out more than just the Celtics’ momentum.
Was told at least 15 fans were ejected from Game 1 tonight. Bostonians just love to hate LeBron I guess.— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) May 18, 2017
Jaylen Brown Didn’t Get Rook’d
It wasn’t the first time he faced LeBron and it certainly won’t be the last, but Jaylen Brown had one of his best all-around performances of his rookie season. He took on the challenge of guarding LeBron, doing perhaps the best job of the many guys who faced him Wednesday.
"I'm going to be ready to guard whoever,” Brown said. “If it’s the waterboy, I’m guarding him, too.”
Brown said he wasn’t intimidated at all and will never be, recognizing LeBron is just a human being, despite rampant specualtion he is in fact a cyborg programmed to fly.
“He laces his shoes up like I lace mine up,” Brown said of LeBron. “Trying to make it tough for him, I feel that’s my job.”
He did make it tougher for LeBron than perhaps anyone else that guarded him on-ball, but it was only a brief hurdle on the road to domination for the King.