Game 3 wasn’t void of dramatic storylines. It was going to be the Kevin Love game at first, then it turned into the Marcus Smart game, then the Avery Bradley game-winner game, but let’s not forget the subplot of Jonas Jerebko.
The story of the first half of Celtics-Cavs was reminiscent of the two forgettable games in Boston that preceded it. Cleveland seemed to be overlooking Boston like LeBron James staring at Kelly Olynyk in front of him on a switch. The Cavaliers were practically using Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals as shooting practice for Love.
Those attempts fell through in droves, yielding nothing but net in the first quarter. Love was setting his feet, staring ahead with no remorse, and drilling with deadly accuracy. Sometimes a pump fake was needed, but little more, as four straight three-point attempts flew through the net in just over six minutes to start the game.
That was no surprise. Head coach Tyronn Lue had said outright that one of Cleveland’s goals this series was getting Love more involved in the offense. More stunning was his astounding defense. Minutes after dropping 12 of the Cavs’ first 20 points, he rose way up with Al Horford—their heads almost at rim level—and sent Horford’s shot flying backwards.
At the half, Love had 22 points entirely off seven three-pointers and a free throw; the production was overwhelming to the point where Horford putting a full arm in his face in the corner wasn’t enough to send his shot off course.
The Love production buffer was massive. When his second rattled in Cleveland had a 96% win probability, according to Inpredictable. That rocketed to 99.7% midway through the third quarter when Brad Stevens called a timeout down 21.
A LeBron James team had never blown a 21-point lead in the playoffs. Ever.
With the series almost certainly falling into hopelessness, Stevens called a name off the bench who had seen little playing time—27:50 in total since the end of the Wizards Game 1 paired with five DNP-CDs. It was hard to pinpoint if he had a playoff stint in meaningful moments period this year.
Jonas Jerebko came into the game with the Celtics down 21. By the end of the night, he was a plus-22. He made his own minutes mean something, thanks to a big dose of attitude.
Before he hit the second-biggest shot of the night off a dazzling kick-out pass from Avery Bradley on a drive as the entire Cleveland defense collapsed that put the Celts up two with 30 seconds remaining, he was getting into it with Love himself.
Love was on the ground as Jerebko yelled down at his collapsed body, calling him out for an accused flop. Ten minutes prior, Love was receiving the ball from J.R. Smith like a snap from the center to bomb a “touchdown pass” to James.
The mood was completely different. The Cavs were toying with the Celtics in the second quarter, but when Jerebko entered in the third, it was like a throwback to the 2014-15 season. Jerebko may be miles—no, light years—from the absent Isaiah Thomas in terms of talent, but he wasn’t in the game to get lost in the Cleveland wave. He fired back with a look of intensity on his face.
“I think we gave them a little bit too much respect in those first two games,” he said. “We’re out there to compete and I don’t think we competed that hard those two first games. I just wanted to come out there and play aggressive, and play with some attitude.”
After the Love incident, Deron Williams caught his ire. Jerebko threw two strong shoves at Williams, who was standing in his way to impede his progress and try to draw out some frustration.
They certainly did. Jerebko was fuming with ‘tude in the third quarter, but it was what Stevens was able to draw from him that had a more significant impact on the result—four shot attempts and four makes, none of them bigger than his final one.
Cleveland’s lead was gone, their fate sealed with Bradley’s shot at the buzzer rolled out then dropped back into the net with only 0.1 seconds to spare. Love’s overwhelming makes dissipated into one-of-three shooting from the Jerebko substitution onwards.
Like Jaylen Brown before him, Terry Rozier after a regular season of struggles, and Gerald Green going from months of hot chocolate duty on the bench to the starting lineup seven separate times in the postseason, the Celts have made their depth a strength. Most teams cut off their playoff rotations at seven or eight, and Jerebko has been, for all intents and purposes, the 12th man so far. But not on Sunday night.
“We just needed a little jolt,” Stevens said. “I do think there are times guys that haven’t played quite as much, there’s a real energy and desire to go out and put it all out there. Sometimes you get gassed early, but he’s done a good job of staying in shape and staying the course. Without Gerald, we don’t win the Chicago series. Without some of our bench play in Washington, we don’t win. And then Jonas tonight was a huge reason why we won.”
Boston needed a throwback performance Sunday night. Before they were a #1 seed this season, they were a group that could still win tough games on the gritty efforts of players like Jerebko and Marcus Smart. Being on the lower level of the talent scale was familiar territory for a team that has risen together from the days when Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass represented their starting front court.
That was the last time the Celts faced the Cavs in the postseason, a Luigi Datome three from pulling off a similarly large comeback in game four of that series. Back in 2015 the Pistons dumped Datome with Jerebko to Boston in order to bring back Tayshaun Prince. Detroit didn’t need either, but Stevens found value in both.
Now, two years later, the Celts finally upended Cleveland in the East Finals by making a game that was about getting Love shots into one about Jerebko, a 21-point comeback from every starter to the back of the bench.