CLEVELAND – When the Boston Celtics ran back to their locker room after Game 3, cheering and celebrating Avery Bradley’s buzzer beater, there was one mini elephant not in the room. They had the big win they had been fighting for all series, but Isaiah Thomas had to watch it on TV after suffering a hip labrum tear that ended his season early.
As Marcus Smart entered the locker room, he was one of the heroes of the game. He put on an unforgettable 27 point, seven three-pointer, seven assist, five steal performance. He became the first player ever in NBA history to shoot less than 30-percent from deep all year and then hit seven threes in a playoff game, per ESPN’s Kevin Pelton.
Then through the power of FaceTime, Isaiah Thomas appeared, looking for his understudy.
“I told him I channeled my inner IT and he kind of laughed a little bit. It felt good. It felt good to see him smile,” Smart said.
“We called him on FaceTime, so he got to celebrate with us a little bit,” Avery Bradley said. “Just so sad that he's not here. We wish he was here with us, and we just want him to get better.”
Thomas has been devastated since his season ended after Game 2, but he was in great spirits for once after the win.
“He was just happy. He was happy. He was excited,” Bradley said. “He sent everybody a text, and then Kelly [Olynyk] just called him, or he might have been calling Kelly right after the game, so it was nice to see a smile on his face. I just wish he was here.”
While Thomas is renowned for the chip on his shoulder, Smart is no slouch when it comes to firey motivation. He stepped up with his best all-around performance of his career when everything was on the line and his confidence is exploding.
“It boosts it through the roof, and not only for me, but for this team. Everybody is confident,” Smart said. “Everybody has been counting us out, and we get blown out at home both games, and to come into hostile territory and come out with a victory, it was an amazing feeling for us, and it definitely helped our confidence.”
The Celtics remain confident without Thomas, whose whereabouts were unknown to his coach as he flies around the country to get his hip evaluated. But Boston came through with late game execution and some fortunate bounces of luck.
“I felt like every shot is going in. I felt like that's how every shooter should think,” Bradley said. “I'm just blessed that it was able to go in because I couldn't have got a better look than what I got.”
The Celtics executed three consecutive ATOs to close out the Cavs in Game 3. Bradley continued to heaped praise on his coach and his teammates for pulling it out with perfection.
“The play that Brad [Stevens] drew up, the screen that Al [Horford] set, I mean, first the cut that Jae [Crowder] made, the screen that Al set and the pass that Marcus was able to make, I mean, it couldn't have been executed better. It's credit to those guys, especially Al, to be able to get me open the way he did.”
Bradley had a titanic moment on the grandest stage of his career, with the whole sequence feeling like a slow-motion move climax.
“Everyone said that after the game. It couldn't have ended better. I mean, everything leading up to that point I feel like was a movie. It was a fun game to be a part of, and I know the fans appreciated it.”
But there is plenty of runtime left on this potential blockbuster. Sunday’s Game 3 win was a plot twist even M. Night Shyamalan didn’t see coming. Even LeBron didn’t see it coming. Bradley and Smart know they aren’t going to get another chance to surprise Cleveland. After Boston bounced back in Game 3, LeBron is bound for some revenge in Game 4.
“LeBron James understands how to play the game and he understands what his team needs from him,” Bradley said. “He's most likely going to be a lot more aggressive.”
Smart echoed Bradley’s sentiments, projecting an even more ferocious LeBron than the guy who tore them to pieces in the first two games.
"We know LeBron is going to come out even stronger than he has in games 1 and 2, but we've got to be willing to take that punch and keep fighting. He's going to hit some tough shots. Their whole team is going to make some tough shots. We can't let that get to us, and we've just got to keep playing and execute what Brad draws up.
"They're still picking us not to win, so it's going to be another test for us. Our whole philosophy throughout this playoffs is this is us versus everybody else, and that's just how we've been throughout the playoffs, and that's the team we are and that's how we play, especially with one of our better players down in IT. Everybody really got us down, so we've really got that mentality of we've just got to keep rolling."
Bradley looked to plugging up the holes around LeBron in Game 4, with an emphasis on the glass where Tristan Thompson reigns supreme.
“It's our job to make sure that we defend [LeBron] as best we can and just make every -- take other guys out of the game. I mean, I think Tristan made 12 free throws or something like that?” Bradley said. “We have to try to limit him to less rebounds. It's going to be hard, but if we're able to do that and guard the three, I like our chances.”
Stevens’ takeaway from the game was that while LeBron’s numbers suffered, he still had a big impact that will snowball into Game 4.
“Well, one of the things, as you go back and watch the film, I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays. When you've got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over.
The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He's a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. But like I said last night, I'm not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”