CLEVELAND -- It’s an essential mystery of playoff basketball why one team can play another with such force one night and be run over by the same team the next.
For the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers were a step or two slow and out of sorts. For Game 3 they were close to perfect in a 116-86 victory that was never in doubt.
After two games of communication breakdowns, the Cavs were finally connected defensively. They pressured the ball and closed down passing lanes. On the other end of the floor, they settled into their preferred pace while LeBron James picked the Celtics apart.
James was magnificent, with 27 points on 12 shots and a dozen more assists that led to 30 points. His supporting cast was on point, from George Hill to J.R. Smith to Kyle Korver, the three of whom went 10-for-17 from 3-point range. The Celtics never found a flow, or really anything they could make work.
“I don’t know,” LeBron answered, when asked why it happens for teams some nights and not on others. We were right there with him.
There were adjustments, sure. The Cavs tweaked their defense to limit Jaylen Brown from going off in the first quarter, as he had in Game 2, and the Celtics never got into a rhythm offensively. Score one for Cavaliers coach Ty Lue.
There’s the comforts of home versus the unfamiliarity of the road. The Celtics have now lost five of their six games away from the Garden and their difficulty putting together four good quarters on the road was superseded by their inability to put together even one good one in Game 3. Their playoff road woes are now officially a thing.
And then there’s pride in not letting four celebrated years of your professional life come to an inglorious end. For three days we wanted to see how the Cavaliers would respond down 2-0 against the young and hungry Celtics and we got our answer in the game’s first few minutes.
The Cavs jumped out to an early lead and the Celtics never recovered. The inevitable run for a Celtics team that lives for second-half comebacks was nowhere to be found against a Cavs’ squad that routinely gives up big leads.
So, now we have a series and Game 4 on Monday takes on an air of importance. The longer this goes, the tougher it will be to knock off LeBron ... and any thoughts of the Cavs throwing in the towel have been squashed. For one night at least.
The Celtics came here looking to get a split and Game 4 will do just as well as Game 3. Take that one home to Boston and everyone will go back to writing their obituaries for this era of Cavs basketball. What would be delightful is if both teams came to play with the same energy and force on the same night.
We need to talk about LeBron’s passing, because it was sublime. As he spun through the litany of spectacular assists, James joked, “They’re all pretty difficult. Don’t try it at home.”
More than his uber-efficient shooting, it was his passing that defined Game 3. James got George Hill and J.R. Smith rolling early and then toyed with the various defensive coverages he saw, dropping off passes with his left and right hand to his big men. By the time James and Kyle Korver fell into a rhythm in the fourth, the game was already over.
“One thing about it — he prides himself on on time, on target,” Lue said. “And when guys are open, he wants to make sure they have it right in their shooting pocket to get their shot off.”
LeBron’s belief in making the right play is his defining trait as a player. That’s the whole key to playing with James. He’s going to give you the ball exactly where and how you want it and you better be ready to shoot when it comes your way. The Cavs were ready and LeBron delivered.
The Celtics, on the other hand, were really bad. They settled for pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock and played with a fast pace that signified nothing. Instead of ball movement and unselfish passing leading to open looks, there were isolations and contested shots.
Even in good times, their offense has come in spurts. What was particularly troubling was how disconnected they were on defense.
Of primary concern for the C’s is defending the 3-point line, a must against this Cavs team. After limiting them to 14-for-57 in the first two games of the series, the Cavs shot 17-for-34 from behind the arc in Game 3.
“We didn’t play our coverage,” Marcus Smart said. “Guys were out of position. Guys didn’t know what we were doing. Everybody, the entire team. That’s just communication. We weren’t really talking like we did in Games 1 and 2. They did what we did to them the first two games.”
The C’s barely resembled the team that’s put the NBA on notice the last few weeks and looked more one playing way over its head. Perhaps this was a timely lesson for a young team coming into its own.
“We needed to get our butts whipped,” Terry Rozier said. “Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”
You can ask how and why all night and still not come up with an acceptable answer. Basketball is weird.