CLEVELAND — The Boston Celtics' best player was unable to take the floor, and the Cleveland Cavaliers just needed theirs to show up.
With point guard Isaiah Thomas out with a hip injury, the Celtics' 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference Finals seemed ever deeper heading into Sunday's Game 3, especially in Northeast Ohio. With LeBron James enjoying perhaps his greatest statistical postseason, a third straight sweep for the Cavs seemed inevitable.
But then the Cavs stepped off the gas.
Boston overcame a 21-point deficit in a 111-108 victory when Avery Bradley sunk a decisive three-pointer with 0.1 seconds left. It not only marked Cleveland's first postseason loss, but the first time in 50 games James has blown a 20-point lead in the playoffs.
In 23 second-half minutes, James registered just three points, one rebound and one assist. He shot 1-of-8 from the floor, including 0-of-2 from deep. But it wasn't his poor shooting that was surprising. It was the lack of killer instinct.
"I had a tough game, period," James said as he finished with just 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting in 45 minutes. "Me personally, I didn’t have it. My teammates did a great job of keeping us in the game and building that lead. But me personally, I didn’t have it."
While James' poor play was shocking, so too were the strong performances from some of the Celtics.
Marcus Smart, starting at point guard for Thomas, finished with 27 points, five rebounds and seven assists to go along with outstanding defense. A career 29.1 percent shooter from outside the arc, Smart made seven of his 10 attempts. Cleveland only made two threes in the second half.
"We can talk about his shooting all year long, but you know when it's a big moment, that kid is going to rise to the occasion," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "Because in this moment, when we needed him the most, he made huge shots."
Jonas Jerebko, playing meaningful minutes for the first time all series, was a plus-22 in his 12:32 off the bench. He picked up hard fouls on both Kevin Love and Deron Williams and showed that the Celtics had some fight after all.
Bradley finished with 20 points and the game-winner, a three that spun on the rim for what seemed like an eternity before gently falling through the nylon. Had the shot simply gone in, it would have given Cleveland over a full second to get a shot off rather than the 0.1 they were left with.
"Thank God it's bouncing on the rim, because it's taking time," Stevens said. "So when it bounced around, I was actually hoping it went in, obviously, but not completely disappointed that it was bouncing up there."
The real kicker is that the Celtics looked far better without Thomas, their leading-scorer who made the All-NBA second team.
"Defensively, we're a little bit bigger across the board," Stevens said.
Defensively, there were few weaknesses with Smart, Bradley and Jae Crowder loading the wing against James. Removing the 5'9" Thomas didn't seem to hurt one bit, especially with Smart shooting 70.0 percent from deep. Boston moved the ball freely, with six players scoring in double figures. They finished with 28 assists on 42 made shots.
"We just tried to be as solid as possible," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "We tried to switch a little bit less. I think we have a couple of guards out there that are bigger guards, and we just tried to rotate bodies on him. We've gone every which way on that guy. Right when you think you figure something out, he just kills you. I don't want to act like we've figured anything out."
Despite the win, Thomas' absence was felt. Stevens said he will be traveling the country to meet with specialists to determine the best course of action for his injured hip.
"We definitely miss Isaiah," said Smart. "IT sending out a text and letting us know he's not going to be with us anymore, that was devastating. He's a big key to this team, not just to this team as a player but a human being. We lost our brother who couldn't be in this battle with us."
For the Cavaliers, recovering from the first loss in over a month shouldn't be tough to do. James can't possibly be this bad again, right?
"I feel some adversity is part of the postseason," James said. "I feel like you have to have some sort of adversity to be successful. Let’s get back to playing desperate basketball.
"If it was going to happen, let it happen now."
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.