Celtics fans cheered wildly.
Their team had just cut the deficit to 17 to end the third quarter.
The Cavaliers dominated quickly and then were up-and-down in extended garbage time of a 117-104 win at Boston in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Cleveland led by double digits the final three quarters and by 20 for nearly half the game.
Cavs-Warriors III in the Finals has never felt more inevitable, both teams remaining undefeated in these playoffs. The Spurs’ chances of upsetting Golden State nearly ran out when Kawhi Leonard got hurt, and Boston’s bid to topple the Cavaliers didn’t get off the ground in Game 1.
The Celtics stayed home on Cleveland’s 3-point shooters, so the Cavaliers – particularly LeBron James (38 points on 14-of-24 shooting, nine rebounds and seven assists) – feasted inside. Tristan Thompson (20 points on 7-for-7 shooting with six offensive rebounds) crashed the offensive glass relentlessly, and his final line doesn’t reveal the true scope of the pressure he put on Boston’s defense. The Cavs shot 28-for-35 from the free-throw line to 10-for-18 to the Celtics, a disparity that reflects the difference in paint play.
Kevin Love (32 points on 9-of-16 shooting, including 6-of-9 on 3-pointers, with 12 rebounds) was the only Cavalier who consistently got loose on the perimeter, completing a dominant frontcourt performance.
Al Horford (11 points on 4-of-11 shooting) was off yet again against the Cavaliers, a continuation of his Hawks days, until the game got out of hand. Jae Crowder (21 points, eight rebounds and five assists) and Avery Bradley (21 points) had their moments, but the Celtics looked completely overmatched – and it’s unclear where they go from here.
Boston, which cycled through several defenders on LeBron, could send more help to the Cleveland star. But LeBron has become so good at picking apart defenses with his passing. Maybe the Celtics will shoot better on 3-pointers (12-for-38, 32% tonight), but that’s still not necessarily enough to keep up with the Cavs’ dominant offense. Jaylen Brown (10 points on 5-of-7 shooting with nine rebounds and Boston’s most passable defense on LeBron) was a breath of fresh air, and Gerald Green (11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, +11) shined late. But what will those two do when the game is more contested?
It’s foolish to write off the Celtics after only one game, but this result met every fear of an unwatchable series.
Boston’s answer to LeBron might have come yesterday – which means help won’t arrive until it’s too late for this year.