LeBron James, Cavaliers Destroy Celtics 116-86 for Critical Game 3 Win

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against the Boston Celtics in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 19, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers earned their first win of the Eastern Conference Finals, beating the Boston Celtics 116-86 in Game 3 on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.

LeBron James had 27 points, five rebounds and 12 assists, and his 12 shot attempts were his fewest of the postseason. The four-time MVP was also responsible for a number of highlight-reel plays.

After playing a big part in helping the Celtics take a 2-0 series lead, Jaylen Brown had 10 points, while Jayson Tatum (18 points) was the team's leading scorer.


Al Horford's Inefficient Game Gives Re-Energized Cavs Defense Blueprint for Success

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Al Horford was a big reason the Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, as he outplayed Sixers center Joel Embiid for much of the series. Horford got off to a strong start in the conference finals as well, averaging 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in Boston's two wins.

The five-time All-Star was almost invisible Saturday night, finishing with seven points and seven rebounds and attempting just four shots.

Michael Reghi @MichaelReghi

While being defended by @RealTristan13 Al Horford with just 1 FG attempt, a miss, and 2 FT makes. 2 points. Just 5 of his Game 2 points while being defended by Thompson, after scorching Love for 20 plus points Game 1. Huge plus factor for @cavs

The Celtics tried getting Horford more involved in the second quarter, but head coach Brad Stevens essentially waved the white flag when he removed him with Boston down 21 points, 76-55, midway through the third quarter.

Nate Duncan @NateDuncanNBA

I liked Stevens' strategy with Horford's mins. He played 22 in the first half in an effort to get them back in contact, but pulled the plug on him when it was evident comeback wasn't happening in 3rd.

Neutralizing Horford is big for the Cavaliers because he is such a hub for Boston's offense. He was third on the team in assists during the regular season (4.7 per game), and his inside scoring helps set up the Celtics' perimeter game.

Without Horford setting the tone close to the basket, the Cavaliers could focus more on guarding the three-point line and held Boston to 6-of-22 on three-pointers.


Cavs' Resurgence Hinges on Supporting Cast Allowing LeBron James to Play Less "Hero Ball"

Following Cleveland's 107-94 loss in Game 2, J.R. Smith lamented how he and his teammates had put too much on James' shoulders.

"We have to ramp it up," Smith said, per USA Today's Matt Eppers. "We’re playing too slow. We’re making 'Bron play hero ball, which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference finals. We got to help him."

The Cavaliers' supporting cast answered the call, Smith included. The veteran sharpshooter scored 11 points and shot 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, while George Hill had 13 points, his most since Game 2 of the second round.

Dan Favale @danfavale

George Hill realizing he's allowed to take more than four shots per game is a beautiful thing

Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

George Hill and J.R. Smith already with more points in first quarter tonight than they had in four quarters of Game 2.

All five Cavs starters scored in double figures, while Cleveland's bench chipped in with 42 combined points.

ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo

All 5 Cavaliers starters are in double figures for the 2nd time this postseason. It also happened in Game 4 of the Conference Semifinals against the Raptors. https://t.co/k216IHlO03

When James has to score more than 40 points and attempt nearly 30 shots, the Cavaliers look like a pedestrian team. Saturday's performance more resembled the squad that decimated the Toronto Raptors in the previous round.

Zach Lowe @ZachLowe_NBA

Cavs offense so much better tonight in ways that shouldn't have taken till now: more Hill/Love and Hill/Bron action on and off ball, smarter ways for Tristan and Nance (who was really good, btw) to get into PNRs with Bron and hurt Baynes.

Zach Lowe @ZachLowe_NBA

LeBron's energy on defense was on a different level. Cavs also got into their offense earlier (at times), even off Boston makes. Just a better game. Difference b/w stagnant CLE and good CLE -- beyond making shots -- isn't rocket science.

Look no further than James' stat line to see the benefits of having the role players step up.


Celtics' Title Hopes Moot Without Improvement on Road

With Saturday's defeat, the Celtics are now 1-5 on the road in the postseason, which is a significant contrast from the regular season, when Boston had the best road record in the Eastern Conference (28-13).

Jason Lloyd @JasonLloydNBA

Boston at home this postseason: 9-0, 110ppg, 47%fg, 39% 3ptfg. Boston on road this postseason: 1-4, 95ppg, 41%fg, 31% 3ptfg Lot of series left, folks.

Liam Martin @LiamWBZ

It’s amazing how different the #Celtics are on the road.

The Celtics' struggles away from home in the playoffs could be one of the pitfalls of relying on a team with so many younger players and others, such as Terry Rozier, who aren't accustomed to playing such large roles. Even at his best, Horford isn't the kind of scorer who can single-handedly change a game.

Chris Fedor @ChrisFedor

THIS is the environment where Celtics miss Kyrie Irving the most. He relishes going on the road, playing on biggest stage. Never rattles. Can score on anyone when game tightens.

Boston still has home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference Finals, so the team could go the entire series without winning in Quicken Loans Arena and advance to the NBA Finals.

With that said, the Celtics would leave themselves with little margin for error if they continue to be such a different team playing away from TD Garden. Looking beyond this series, beating the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors would be next to impossible in the absence of any improvement.


What's Next?

The Cavaliers can even the series in Game 4 on Monday night. As bad as things got in the opening two games of the conference finals, the landscape would change dramatically if Cleveland were to reel off two straight at home before things head back to Boston.


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