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Celtics were helpless against LeBron James and Cavaliers in Game 1

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, drives for a layup in front of Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the second quarter of Game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals, Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

It apparently won’t matter if LeBron James suddenly loses his jumper for the Eastern Conference Finals. Well, at least when his opponent all of a sudden can’t find theirs, either.

The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics 117-104 on Wednesday night, taking full advantage of a weeklong rest advantage to embarrass the green and gold on their home floor. Cleveland, which wrapped up its second-round sweep of the Toronto Raptors all the way back on May 7, used a 22-point halftime advantage to keep weary Boston at arm’s length for the game’s duration. James finished with 38 points on 14-for-24 shooting from the field, along with nine rebounds and seven assists.

Annoyed young basketball players everywhere are constantly subject to ramblings about the need for “legs” while shooting jump shots. But what happens when the legs are hardly working? That’s what befell the Celtics in Game 1, just 48 hours removed from edging the Washington Wizards with their season on the line. Boston shot 2-for-16 from 3-point range and 5-for-11 from the free throw line in the first half. Even more indicative of those widespread shooting woes? Brad Stevens’ team had just two assists at intermission.

Things eventually got a bit better for the Celtics. They were within 17 points with 7:21 left in the game on the strength of five third-quarter triples, but James shut the door on any hopes of a historic comeback from there. First was his and-1 take past Isaiah Thomas after a switch, which was basically his overall performance in a nutshell. James decided he was going to live at the rim Wednesday. Each of his 12 baskets within the first three-and-a-half quarters came in the paint. The jump shot that was so reliable for James in the first two rounds of the playoffs went missing, but it didn’t matter.

When Boston finally had some semblance of momentum, though, James found his shot. He scored five straight points – on a fadeaway 13-footer and pull-up triple from center – once the Celtics cut Cleveland’s lead to 99-82. The TD Garden began shuffling up the aisles immediately thereafter.

James hardly was alone in stealing home-court advantage. Kevin Love picked up his slack from the perimeter by making six of his nine tries from deep. Tristan Thompson was a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor, and dominated on the offensive glass. Ty Lue had his team humming on both sides of the ball from the opening tip. When James makes the game this easy for himself and his teammates, though, there’s almost no point for the opponent to show up.

The prevailing notion coming into this series was that Boston would make James work by throwing as many defenders at him as possible. Jae Crowder, Al Horford, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart all took turns as his primary defender. The Celtics tried switching ball screens and letting Thomas and Kelly Olynyk live on an island with James.

But they were all helpless in Game 1, just like the Celtics as a whole. Come Friday night, we’ll find out if their chances to win this series are any better.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • This is a pretty good way for Kyrie Irving to open the conference finals:
  • A harbinger of things to come for The King:
  • This was Thompson’s first offensive rebound. It wasn’t his last:
  • When Thompson makes plays like this on the roll, there’s nothing Boston can do but shake its collective head:
  • LeBron, coming right at you and Al Horford:
  • James did this to Olynyk on consecutive possessions:
  • Love, who scored 32 points, didn’t only do damage from beyond the arc:
  • Yes, this is your first Celtics highlight:
  • Cleveland will work with Irving as James’ screener over and over throughout this series. Sometimes, neither of them will be the one to finish the play:
  • Kevin Love, whirling dervish:
  • The Celtics needed much, much more of this from Thomas in the second half:
  • Anything Isaiah can do, Kyrie can do better:
  • It was tough for Boston to make up a 22-point halftime deficit with Love making it rain:
  • Energy! Life! Marcus Smart! Too bad it was still a 17-point game:
  • This is a pretty good matchup for the Cavaliers:
  • His first made jumper of the game:
  • Thoughts, LeBron?:

CAVS NOTES

  • Lue probably won’t get much credit for leading Cleveland to a blowout win, and that’s a shame. He made several major game-planning adjustments that helped his team run Boston out of TD Garden. Biggest among them? Lineup and rotational changes. Channing Frye didn’t appear until garbage time. Kyle Korver was the Cavs’ first man off the bench. Love was featured in a bench-heavy unit to start the second quarter, a role normally reserved for James. Bravo, Coach Lue.
  • Cleveland wasn’t quite perfect, by the way. Its biggest issue was inattentive off-ball defense. Avery Bradley is one of the game’s best cutters, but that doesn’t mean he should beat Irving backdoor on three separate occasions. He got Love, too, and the Cavaliers also fell asleep on multiple out-of-bounds plays.
  • What an expected pleasure it is to watch James go back down to the post more and more as the postseason lights get brighter and brighter. He was almost unstoppable attacking from the perimeter on Wednesday, but also made a living on the block against multiple defenders. It’s that time of year, thankfully.
  • Irving’s postseason “struggles” continued. He needed 11 shots to score as many points, and missed all three of his tries from range. The good news: Irving let the game come to him and made several whip-smart passes.

CELTICS NOTES

  • Stevens tweaked his rotation, too. Boston began the game with its normal starting lineup, but Olynyk replaced Amir Johnson to open the second half. Tyler Zeller made a one-possession appearance in the first half, and Gerald Green got some burn as the Celtics tried to make a dent on the scoreboard late in the third quarter. Stevens matched Lue at one point by playing without a traditional big man, too.
  • Horford missed his first six shots, failing to score until Boston trailed by 22 points with 2:41 left in the second quarter. He was the Celtics’ best player over seven hard-fought games with the Washington Wizards. If Boston has any chance of pulling off the upset, Horford won’t just have to be much better than he was in Game 1 – but even better than he was in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
  • Though Thomas had 17 points and 10 assists, he was far from his ultra-dynamic self on Wednesday. James and Thompson easily contained him off the dribble on multiple occasions. That’s not awful; those guys are incredibly quick for their size. But Thomas needs to win those matchups more often than not for the Celtics to keep pace.
  • Lone team-wide bright spot: Boston’s 13 offensive rebounds, a playoff high. Lone individual bright spot: Brown, who had 10 points and nine rebounds, scored from all over the floor and actually did a pretty good job checking James.

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