LeBron, Cavaliers open East finals by shutting down Celtics
BOSTON — When LeBron James played his first playoff game in Boston, Celtics rookie Jaylen Brown was just 11 years old. Brad Stevens had just finished his first year as a head coach. Tyronn Lue was playing for the Atlanta Hawks.
In short, James has been playing big games in Boston for a long time. And for the past seven years or so, he’s pretty much dominated in the TD Garden in the postseason. He added another notch Wednesday, setting the tone for the Cleveland Cavaliers with relentless attacks to the basket that methodically broke the Celtics en route to a 117-104 Game 1 victory in the Eastern Conference finals.
“The energy was there from the start,” James told TNT after the win.
With nine days off giving spring to his legs, and worry about rust defining his game plan, James bull-rushed the Celtics early to help the Cavs establish a lead and snuff out any momentum the Celtics might’ve carried over from their Game 7 victory over the Washington Wizards 48 hours earlier.
The Celtics opened with a plan to switch defenders off screens to prevent James from turning the corner on drives. James shook it off, more than happy to set up the Celtics’ big men and beat them with strength, quickness and plain ruthlessness. He seemed to take special pleasure when he was guarded by Kelly Olynyk, a nemesis from his last playoff vanquishing of the Celtics in 2015, skipping before crushing him on easy finishes.
James went 7-of-7 from the paint in the first quarter alone, and the Celtics’ dreams of catching the Cavs with rust were dashed when they went 0-of-8 on open 3-point shots in the first half.
Eventually the Celtics gave up and let the perimeter players stay on James, and that only served as a further green light. When it was over, he’d piled up 38 points plus nine rebounds and seven assists. It was his seventh consecutive playoff game scoring at least 30 points, a personal record. He did break a sweat, but one could be convinced otherwise.
He also ran his NBA record of consecutive playoff series with a road win to 29 as the Cavs grabbed the home-court advantage they appeared to have frittered away to the Celtics at the end of the regular season.
The Cavs probably didn’t need it, but they backed up James’ effort with big nights from Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Love had a career playoff-best 32 points and 12 rebounds, becoming just the second James teammate to get 30 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game (the other was Dwyane Wade). He was the first Cav not named James to go for 30 and 10 in a playoff game since Brad Daugherty in 1992.
Thompson had the best playoff-scoring game of his career with 20 points, to go with six offensive rebounds, as he and Love predictably dominated the Celtics’ interior on the boards.
The Celtics showed some fight and made a late push to make the game respectable. Marcus Smart attempted to shake things up by tangling with Thompson, perhaps to establish something for Friday’s Game 2. The two got tied up a few times in the third quarter and were hit with technicals. But by early in the fourth, Smart had fouled out as his rough play accomplished little more than a disqualification.
Celtics leader Isaiah Thomas had issues getting free, but when he did get clean looks he often didn’t convert. It was the fifth time in the past six playoff games that he didn’t crack 20 points as he finished with just 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
In a play that perhaps defined the game, Thomas had a drive thwarted when he tried to score over James and just anemically shot the ball only a few feet into the air before catching it and being called for a travel. James barked at the Celtics bench afterward, indicating Thomas had no chance against him.
On this night, none of the Celtics did.