The Cavs’ backs weren’t to the wall, but the wall WAS starting to get nervous.
For Cleveland, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was not a win-or-go-home game. But it was a win-or-get-ready-to-go-home game.
However, no need to call a cab, an ambulance, or the mortuary -- yet.
Saturday night at The Whew!, er, The Q, the Cavs finally figured out a way to beat Boston’s Gang Green: play harder. This ain’t brain surgery.
It’s a question that has dogged the Cavs throughout their tumultuous 2017-18 season: What’s so hard about playing hard?
In Game 3, it was like the Cavs and Celtics switched identities. The Cavs played like the Celtics played in Games 1 and 2, and the Celtics played like the Cavs played in those two games.
All of a sudden a 2-0 series is now 2-1, and Game 4 is Monday at The Q. It’s game on.
After looking gassed, harassed and outclassed in the two games in Boston, the Cavs returned home and played their most complete game of the playoffs in Game 3.
They punched the Celtics in the nose early and kept their foot on Boston’s throat for the full 48 minutes. It was a non-stop Cavsfest. No easing off the gas. No dreaded third-quarter funk. No coasting. No shoulder shrugging or finger pointing.
“As a group, we covered for one another. We were flying around,” said LeBron James.
They won every quarter, and they won the game. By a lot. It was all Cavs, all the time. They played with appropriate desperation, given the consequences of falling behind in the series 3-0.
“They were great. They took it to us. They played with tremendous connectivity,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens.
The Celtics played like a team that had its way in the first two games, running circles around and outworking an opponent that appeared disinterested and distracted. Perhaps that was fool’s gold for the young Celtics, who absorbed a tone-setting 20-4 first-quarter haymaker from the Cavs.
One of the first signs that the Cavs had the Celtics in trouble, and everyone in the gym knew it, came in the first quarter when Stevens subbed into the game Guerschon Yabusele.
There were no lead changes. The game was never tied. The Celtics never had a lead. The Cavs led wire-to-wire in an overwhelming series reboot.
“We wanted to be aggressive. It was a great defensive game and a great all-around game for us,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.
Three games in, let’s call this The Blowout Series. Boston won the first two games by a combined 38 points. Cleveland won Game 3 by 30 points (116-86).
After barely even showing up in the first two games, the Cavs’ defense in Game 3 was spectacular, from start to finish. The Cavs held Boston to 39 percent shooting from the field, and 27 percent on 3-pointers. The Cavs had nine steals, and pretty much pushed the Celtics around the floor for the full 48.
So that tells us that it’s in there. The Cavs can play defense like this if they want to. There is no excuse for us not to see it the rest of the series.
It’s amazing how differently the two teams look when the Cavs are playing at home and the Celtics on the road, as opposed to vice versa.
That old axiom that role players tend to play better at home is becoming a series subplot. All the Celtics have are role players. Their two stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, are out with injuries.
So Boston is playing with a roster of role players. Some of them are really good role players, but they are role players nonetheless. They all played really good at home, but Saturday night, on the road, in Cleveland -- they got haymakered. Boston has lost five of its six road playoff games.
Stevens scoffs at the whole home-road premise. “If we play in Boston like that, we’ll get beat,” he said after the Cavs’ Saturday night flushing of the Celtics.
In the two games in Boston, the Cavs’ role players were missing in action. Saturday night in Game 3, they were all stat-sheet stuffers.
George Hill, who only scored eight points in the first two games, scored 13 points in the first half of Game 3. J.R. Smith, who scored four points in Game 1 and none in Game 2, chipped in with 11 points and five rebounds in Game 3.
Triston Thompson played Celtics center Al Horford off the floor, Thompson going for 10 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes, while holding Horford to seven points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes.
What it came down to was every Cavs player outplayed his matchup on the Celtics. And now, just when we were beginning to think that it wasn’t -- it’s a series again.
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