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LeBron James and Cavaliers were as awesome as Celtics were terrible

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives between Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) and guard Isaiah Thomas (4) during first half of Game 2 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals, Friday, May 19, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
AP Photo/Elise Amendola

LeBron James had his layup pinned to the glass by Al Horford on Friday night, then casually pointed to the sky, anticipating a goaltending call that never came. Instead of complaining to the officials and loafing back on defense, the best player in the world composed himself, turned around and sprinted back on defense in time to return the favor by blocking Avery Bradley’s shot.

Even when things are briefly going the Boston Celtics’ way, basically, James immediately refuses to allow that vestige of hope to last. He followed the block on Bradley with a hard-cutting layup for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He helped forced a miss on the other end, and subsequently drilled an easy 20-footer over the outstretched arms of Horford. He jumped the passing lane for a steal to thwart Boston’s next possession, and ended his personal surge with a 3-pointer from the left wing.

James’ two-way run extended Cleveland’s lead to 53-22 with 6:28 left in the second quarter, an advantage that swelled to 41 points at intermission – an NBA record for the playoffs. The Celtics, believe it or not, couldn’t recover over the next 24 minutes, falling to the Cavaliers by the video-game score of 130-86.

Unlike most playoff blowouts, this game wasn’t the result of one team playing exceptionally well and the other playing exceptionally poorly. Boston was just as terrible in the first half as Cleveland was amazing, a reality best exemplified by the box-score lines of each team’s respective star. James had 22 points, three rebounds, six assists, two steals and three blocks at halftime; Isaiah Thomas had two points and was 0-for-6 from the floor.

Down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s unclear how the Celtics are supposed to make this series competitive. With James, unbelievably, reaching a new peak at 32 years old and the Cavaliers as a whole executing at their highest level to date, this team seems legitimately unbeatable. Cleveland has been rolling ever since “struggling” its way to a first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers.

Boston definitely bears some culpability here, though, and it’s not necessarily the kind that exposes Brad Stevens’ team as a fraud among season-long contenders. It might just be that the Cavaliers exploit the Celtics’ weaknesses, mitigate their strengths and happen to employ basketball’s only individual trump card. The next two games of this series – or one more, if Cleveland gets fat and happy – are a formality by now, but that doesn’t mean Boston, in a vacuum, isn’t a worthy Eastern Conference Finals participant. Maybe the Cavaliers are a juggernaut, or maybe their opponents just make them look like it.

It doesn’t really matter either way. Cleveland moved to 10-0 in the playoffs with Friday night’s victory, a mark the Golden State Warriors have matched on the other side of the bracket – in arguably more impressive fashion against arguably superior competition. The rubber-match NBA Finals the basketball world’s been dreaming of since last year might as well be here. And if the Cavaliers keep playing like this, the second annual rematch might be a classic.

But the defending champions won’t be playing the Celtics; the Warriors are a different beast. Then again, James is, too. June can’t get here fast enough.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Does anyone in the world have a better off-hand than Kyrie Irving?:

  • Gerald Green kept the Celtics in it early, however briefly:

  • A fast break that would make your elementary coach squeal:

  • The beginning of the end for Boston:

  • “Blocked by James!” Vintage LeBron chase-down:

  • Here’s Avery Bradley again, playing the role of Andre Iguodala:

  • Can someone explain how James converted from this angle? Plus the foul, too:

  • LeBron had his shot blocked, so got it back on the other end:

  • Air Love!:

  • This is how Cleveland set the record for biggest halftime lead in postseason history:

  • Make it eight straight 30-point games for The King, matching Michael Jordan’s record:

  • Irving was great on both sides of the ball Friday night:

  • But he’s still best with the ball in his hands:

  • The Cavaliers’ 3-point barrage continued in the third quarter:

  • Channing Frye gets in on the action during extended garbage time:

  • Winning time:

CELTICS NOTES

  • Thomas came up limp late in the first half, and opened the third quarter in Boston’s locker room. Marcus Smart started in his place. Immediately thereafter, the Celtics announced that Thomas would miss the rest of the game with a right hip strain — a development likely owed more to a 41-point deficit than any series injury concerns. Frankly, the tenor of this series won’t be altered whether Thomas is available for Game 3 or not; a Boston comeback would be the most unlikely in NBA history. But it would be a shame if he was unable to finish the best season of his career with a bill of full health. Get well, Isaiah.
  • Gerald Green started for the first time since Game 3 of the Conference Semifinals. For awhile, it seemed like the switch might pay off. He made consecutive 3-pointers early to delay Cleveland’s game-deciding run, and his presence helped Boston push the pace and switch on defense without recourse — in theory, at least. But Cleveland definitely doesn’t mind playing in transition, and certainly has the star power to beat mismatched defenders with isolations and post-ups. Green was helpless guarding James and Irving, for instance, but who isn’t? There may just not be any sustainable answers for the Celtics in this series.
  • If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting a different result, it might be time for Stevens to be committed. Once both teams brought multiple subs into the game, the Celtics were left with Horford checking James and Kelly Olynyk guarding Tristan Thompson. That approach by itself didn’t work in Game 1, and fared especially bad when the Cavaliers coaxed a switch with ball screens. Yet there was Olynyk late in the first quarter, pressuring James on the perimeter after pick-and-rolls. Hedging and recovering is a difficult dance for all players to manage, let alone two big men, but Boston has to adjust here going forward.
  • Perhaps Boston was so concerned about keeping Thompson off the offensive glass that it forgot there was more to the game. The Celtics put multiple bodies on Cleveland’s hyper-active center early, trying to account for their size differential by winning a simple numbers game. It worked for the most part, too; Thompson had just one offensive rebound. The problem: Kevin Love had three.

CAVALIERS NOTES

  • James: 30 points (12-18 FGs, 4-6 3PTs), four rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocks in 33 minutes. Irving: 23 points on 8-for-11 from the field and 3-for-6 from beyond the arc. Love: 21 points (4-9 3PTs) and 12 rebounds.
  • The best example of the noncompetitive nature of the second half: James intentionally slowing down as Jae Crowder frantically chased him in transition after a steal. The potential for injury outweighed the benefit of another score, James decided, and he was right. Thompson didn’t get the memo, though, and threw a lob right back to James — who was chilling at the 3-point line — after receiving a bounce pass on the run, expecting a highlight-worthy finish by his high-flying teammate. Next time, maybe.
  • Cleveland’s terrifying new bench unit features James as its nominal center. A lineup of Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and James began the second quarter, turning the Cavaliers’ 14-point lead into 20 before Love came back into the game with the clock reading 7:58. Is that group playable against the Warriors? It’d be fun to find out, but chances are we won’t; coach Tyronn Lue has made several changes to his rotation from series to series since the playoffs began a month ago.
  • Speaking of Lue, he’s clearly outclassing Stevens in this series. Cleveland has more talent than Boston, but is also much better prepared on both ends of the floor — when it comes to series-specific adjustments and general team-wide tendencies. Maybe another championship will finally get Lue his due as one of the game’s best coaches.

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