We’re officially past the point of calling the Celtics’ playoff run improbable. There’s nothing improbable about the better team winning.
The Celtics aren’t carving a path to the NBA Finals using smoke and Roziers. Their play and their 2-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals is rooted in reality, the reality that even without Kyrie Irving the Celtics are outclassing and outcoaching the opposition with position-less, fearless, relentless basketball.
Remove name recognition, résumé, and ring collection from the equation, and it’s obvious the Celtics have a more complete team than Cleveland. The Cavaliers have LeBron James and the Celtics have everything else in this series — coaching, depth, defense, athleticism, effort, offensive balance. If there were ever one player who could tip the scales in his team’s favor single-handedly it’s James, who has ruled the East for seven straight years. ’Bron tried to do that in Game 2 on Tuesday night at TD Garden and the full weight of the Celtics team shifted the balance back in Boston’s direction.
The Celtics took LeBron’s best shot and then knocked out the Cavs. James was magnificent with a 42-point triple-double (12 assists and 10 rebounds). He even got a double-double from Kevin Love (22 points and 15 rebounds). Still, it added up to a second double-digit loss for the LeBrons, who were blown out in Game 1.
The Celtics withstood LeBron’s barrage and walked away with a win that was as significant psychologically as it was numerically in creating a 2-0 series lead.
Perhaps James was simply exhausted from carrying the Cavaliers all night like the trendy satchel he had slung across his body, but one could detect a hint of resignation in the King’s voice as he discussed the aftermath of Game 2.
James has a preternatural ability to see the game, to think two moves ahead. That foresight also applies to evaluating his NBA circumstances and situation. LeBron sees that winning with this cast and this coach against the Celtics is going to be a Herculean task.
What James didn’t say — repeating his zero concern mantra following Game 1 — was as telling as what he did say.
“I think I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” said James. “You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that. I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.”
While James is trying to run a marathon, the Celtics are treating their offense like a 4 x 100 relay. They keep passing the basketball and the metaphorical baton from one scorer to another, game after game and even quarter after quarter. In Game 2, it went from Jaylen Brown, who scored 14 of his 23 points in the first quarter, to Jayson Tatum (9 of his 11 points came in the second quarter), to Terry Rozier (14 of his 18 points came in the third quarter), to Al Horford, who closed out Cleveland with an 8-point, 5-rebound fourth quarter on his way to 15 points and 10 rebounds
The kids are better than all right, and Al is well above average. The Celtics’ two leading scorers in the playoffs, Tatum and Brown, have hit the fast-forward button on their stardom. Brown is shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from 3-point range. A no-assembly-required scoring machine, Tatum is averaging 18.1 points per game in his first postseason. Rozier has made more 3-pointers (40) than any player in the playoffs.
Unless James can time travel to execute a better version of the trade that sent former running mate Irving to Boston, the Celtics have the better team. They also have a clear coaching advantage with Brad Stevens.
Perhaps the ridiculous three-day break between Games 2 and 3 (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., in Cleveland) will benefit Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue most. If Stevens’s coaching is an Impressionist work of art worthy of a museum then Lue’s work has been a finger-painting you begrudgingly tack on the fridge.
In fairness, the likable Lue is limited by his roster. However, he has exacerbated his predicament with dubious decisions. The Doc Rivers protege didn’t start Tristan Thompson in Game 1 when he should have. He stuck with J.R. Smith and George Hill for significant portions of Game 2 when he shouldn’t have — the two shot a combined 1 for 11.
With his team gasping for offensive air in the second half, Lue never dusted off Jordan Clarkson, benched for Game 2 after scoring 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting in Game 1.
Lue’s decision to turn to the erratic Smith and former Celtic Jeff Green as part of his crunch-time lineup was an abject failure. Smith committed a lazy and dangerous flagrant foul on Horford that gave the Celtics 4 points on one possession to take a 101-89 lead with 3:37 to go. Green committed an egregious turnover on the ensuing possession.
Smith has repeatedly sabotaged Cleveland’s defense with halfhearted switches and lethargic closeouts. While Marcus Smart is flinging his body all over the floor for the Celtics, Smith is treating loose balls like they’re radioactive. He is a minus-23 through two games. According to Second Spectrum, the Celtics shot 8 of 12 in Game 2 when Smith was the primary defender. In 16 possessions guarded by Smith, Brown scored 12 points and shot 5 for 5.
Thompson lamented the lack of communication and the abundance of open shots the Celtics generated.
“They move around and get a lot of action. They are a very well-coached team,” said Thompson. “They force us on the defensive end to have a lot of efforts. If you fall asleep or don’t do the right coverages, they try to expose that.”
The Celtics have exposed Cleveland. The LeBrons’ best hope might be a change of locale. The Celtics have not played with the same force and efficiency on the road in the playoffs (1-4). The one win was a confetti-filled collapse by the Philadelphia 76ers.
If the Celtics don’t engage in hoops self-harm then playing in the NBA Finals looks probable.
The Celtics have graduated from improbable playoff run to formidable playoff team.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.