BOSTON — You don’t win a series in Game 1. Anyone old enough to remember the Memorial Day Massacre knows that. You don’t beat LeBron James in Game 1 and claim victory, either. Ask the Pacers about that.
With that in mind, one shouldn’t make too much of the C’s 108-85 Game 1 victory over the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were the aggressors from the opening tip and it will be interesting to see if Ty Lue and the Cavs elect to start Celtics killer Tristan Thompson in Game 2. Thompson had his moments on the offensive glass as he always does against this team.
What the Celtics did in Game 1 was announce that this will not be like last year when LeBron and the Cavs barely broke a sweat in a five-game wipeout. These C’s are not those C’s.
Take Jaylen Brown, who was a bit player in last year’s series. The second-year man went for a coolly efficient 23-and-8 in the opener. Brown’s courage as a rookie was admirable last season, but he’s grown into a reliable starter by this stage. Scoring nights like this may not be a given, but Brad Stevens knows what he’s getting when he puts him on the floor.
Or consider Jayson Tatum, who was getting ready for the draft at this time last May. Last year’s Celtics didn’t have a wing player who could create his own shot like Tatum. He wasn’t as spectacular as he had been in the last round against Philly, but he didn’t need to be that guy in the opener. Instead, Tatum popped in 16 points in 11 shots and was a game-high plus-27.
“Our young guys are special,” Marcus Morris said. “They’ve been showing it all year. I know you guys consider them as young players, which they are, but their mentality and the way they carry themselves is basically like veterans in this league.”
Ever since they got by Milwaukee in seven games in the opening round, the young Celtics have been playing free and easy. Brown, Tatum, and Terry Rozier have been comfortable in their roles ... and their confidence is boundless.
This is where their advantage lies in this series, because while the Cavs have the best player, the rest of the matchups reveal athletic mismatches up and down the lineup in Boston’s favor. The Celtics have become adept at hunting those mismatches and exploiting them every chance they get.
They will play deep into the shot clock knowing they can get a decent look. They also figured out quickly that there is no big man waiting in the paint to reject their shots at the rim. Sixty points in the paint on 30-for-45 shooting doesn’t lie.
It’s weird to say after the home team takes Game 1 in convincing fashion, but now we know we have a series on our hands. LeBron and the Cavs will not go down lightly, but these Celtics are nobody’s pushover. They are mentally tough, completely fearless, and absolutely confident.
“We have a lot of guys that really just don’t care,” Marcus Smart said. “Our whole life we’ve been fighting bigger opponents than us. And playing LeBron and that Cavs team is great – they’ve been here for a reason. We have talent as well. We’re fearless.”
Buckle up. This is going to be fun.
There will be a lot of attention paid to the job Morris did on LeBron, but that’s missing the forest for the trees. The Celtics are switching everything, which makes the matter of guarding LeBron a collective effort. They know that, and they also know that the LeBron they saw in Game 1 will be very different from the LeBron they see on Tuesday in Game 2.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve ever followed my history,” James said. “So, I’ve got a good sense of the way they played me today and how I’ll play going into Game 2.”
James started to crack the code in the third quarter, as he and the Cavs sliced Boston’s 26-point halftime lead down to 14 by the start of the fourth. James and Kevin Love got better shots and took eight free throws between them as the game slowed down to their pace.
Then Morris, who went for 21 points, started the fourth with a dunk and that keyed a 7-0 run that put the game out of reach. It was a sequence that James recited from memory, as only he can.
The important thing from the Celtics perspective was they absorbed the blow and kept pushing. Again, that didn’t happen last year. The Celtics are cognizant of what can happen when LeBron is pushed to a wall.
“I think we’re very alert to the fact that we’ll get a heavyweight punch on Tuesday night,” Stevens said.
Speaking of Morris and Stevens, the coach stayed with Morris after he picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter. Stevens rarely, if ever, lets foul trouble dictate his rotations.
“If he fouls out in the first quarter, then somebody else has to play,” Stevens said. “That’s the way it goes.”
The Morris dynamic is a fascinating one. He provides toughness and savvy, which is wonderful, but he also plays with a force that can leave people scratching their heads when he fires up quick shots and pull-up jumpers.
Stevens can live with that because he knows Morris’ attention won’t waver on the defensive end when he’s having an off night. It’s also wholly emblematic of this Celtics team. You never know when Morris or Marcus Smart will get hot and carry you for a stretch. That’s the mark of this team: Let it fly and worry about it later.
The Cavs can say with a straight face that they missed a bunch of shots they normally make and that the Celtics connected on a number of tough looks. There’s every reason to believe that Game 2 will define the series far more than the opener did. It’s worth remembering that the Sixers said pretty much the same thing after Game 1 of their series, and it didn’t help them recover.
The Sixers didn’t have LeBron, obviously.
“I have zero level of concern at this stage,” James said. “I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness. You know, you get better throughout the series. You see ways you can get better throughout the series. But I’ve been down 0-1, I’ve been down 0-2. I’ve been down before in the postseason. But for me, there’s never no level of concern no matter how bad I played tonight with seven turnovers, how inefficient I was shooting the ball.
“I’m just as confident going into a series whether it’s a 0-0 series or I’m down 0-1. So we have another opportunity to be better as a ball club coming in Tuesday night, and we’ll see what happens.”
It has to be mildly troubling to James that outside of Kevin Love, the Cavs got little offense from their starters. They won’t get far with J.R.. Smith, Kyle Korver, and George Hill shooting 1-for-10 from behind the arc.
That has as much to do with the Celtics’ ability to switch throughout their lineup and still recover to run shooters off the line and get a hand in their face. It’s what they do defensively and why they’ve been so good despite not having a classic rim protector in the middle of the paint.
If there was a good sign for the Cavs, it was the contributions of their reserves. Thompson was a beast on the boards and Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood each were able to establish a bit of a flow offensively. It’s not much, but it’s something. The world waits for Cedi Osman to get back into the rotation.
We’ve gone this far and haven’t mentioned the contributions of Al Horford, which is just how Horford likes it. Let everyone else have their shine, he’s more than happy to defer when postgame praise is being handed out at the podium.
Let the record show that Horford was once again phenomenal. He had 20 points on only 10 shots, and he also had six assists. When things bogged down, the C’s dumped it to him in the post where he backed his man down like a dad working his kid in the backyard. Defensively, Horford was everywhere he needed to be, just like always.
“Both ends of the floor, he covered for us a lot defensively,” Stevens said. “He did a great job when he switched. He did a great job when he was in help. He’s our rock. He’s the guy we really, really lean on.”
Finally, the Celtics are a different team at home during the playoffs. They’ve now won all eight of their games at the Garden and homecourt advantage should not be taken lightly. Whether it’s the crowd or the comfortable familiarity of the building, the C’s play with an extra energy and bounce on Causeway Street.
Game 2 back in the Garden will define this series. If the Cavs come out and throw that heavyweight punch then this series will take on a new dimension. If the Celtics can take that blow and continue to play with poise, then we’ll see just how far the Cavs are willing to push back.
We’re just getting started, but this feels like a whole new chapter in the saga of LeBron versus Boston.