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Game 3 Gave LeBron, Cavs Blueprint to Completing Comeback vs. Celtics

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IMay 20, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers is introduced before Game Three of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics 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

CLEVELAND — Will the real Cavaliers please stand up?

As has been the story for much of the postseason, the Jekyll-and-Hyde Cavs followed up a playoff game that featured little from players not named LeBron James or Kevin Love with a dominant effort that extended from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

While playing with increased levels of energy would seem like a natural requirement for extended postseason play, Saturday night was the first game in the Eastern Conference playoffs where elevated intensity was palpable for the full 48 minutes.

An early scoring punch from a variety of Cavaliers led to an uncharacteristically sound defensive effort. It resulted in a 116-86 win and a series that now stands at 2-1 and is very much in play after a two-game stint had left the city of Cleveland wondering if this was the end.

"I think tonight as a group, even when things broke down, we just covered for one another," James said. "We made them make extra passes. We made them make extra dribbles. We were flying around, and I just happened to be one of the guys on the floor that wanted to fly around as well."

The Cavaliers hit 17 threes, tying their highest total of long balls made since the trades that signaled their massive midseason rebuild. After a Game 2 that saw 64 of 94 total points scored by James and Love, six Cavaliers finished with double-digit scoring efforts in the win, with first- and second-action sets leading to uncontested shots.

As if their improved success offensively spurned their efforts defensively, the Cavaliers held Boston to an opponent postseason-low 86 points on an opponent postseason-low .392 shooting, including .273 from three-point range. While he had much more help this time around, James led the way on both ends, marrying a handful of highlight-reel dunks with a quickness and intensity defensively that had previously been sporadic at best.

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While Cleveland's offense continues to be its lead area of attack, defense has been the deciding factor since the end of the regular season. Following a lineup change in Game 2 of the first round, it was defense that limited Indiana's Victor Oladipo, allowing the Cavaliers to eventually win in seven games. In the second round, it was once again a staunch defensive effort on the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan that led to a sweep of the Toronto Raptors.

Against the Celtics, if it wasn't evident heading into Saturday night, it was following the win: For sustained success to continue, Cleveland will have to be the tougher, more aggressive team.

"We challenged everyone just to be aggressive, understand the game plan," head coach Tyronn Lue said following the win. "We still had a couple screw-ups, but other than that, it was really a great defensive game for us. From front to back, we played good defensively."

Through the first two games of the series, the Celtics averaged 107.5 points on what felt like effortless execution. Game 3 was a much different story, as their 86 points look much better on paper than they did on the floor.

In Games 1 and 2, Boston was able to pass its way out of situations, catching the Cavs in their rotations and leading to easy points in the paint or wide open three-pointers. On Saturday night, it was as if there were six Cavaliers on the floor at times, suffocating Boston with a variety of looks and not giving up on plays in the event the ball would swing to the other side of the floor.

For added measure, Cleveland also outrebounded the Celtics 45-34 thanks in large part to Lue sticking with a Tristan Thompson-Kevin Love frontcourt, skirting the small-ball lineup that had been used for much of this postseason.

While it had been Love begrudgingly serving as Cleveland's starting center until this series, Thompson's history against Boston's Al Horford—coupled with his ability to switch on to smaller players and defend the pick-and-roll—has been a boon for Lue and the Cavaliers.

"I just think it's always worked with [Tristan]," Love said of the updated frontcourt lineup. "He just brings such a great energy.

"That was another thing tonight: We brought a lot of energy out there. Just having a familiarity with Tristan and Bron and [JR Smith], you can just feel a sense of pride in what we want to get done out there every single night."

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19:  Kevin Love #0 and JR Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react in the first half against the Boston Celtics during Game Three of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on May 19, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOT
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Three days of rest between contests could have gone one of two ways. For Cleveland, a team that turned a seven-point halftime lead in Game 2 into a double-digit loss, it could have led to the organization stewing over what transpired. Thoughts of opportunities lost coupled with mental and physical exhaustion could have resulted in the Cavs curling up and setting sail on their season.

Instead, the Cavaliers played with what was arguably their most active game of the postseason, scoring with ease like Boston had during Games 1 and 2.

It will be easy to oversimplify the outcome as a matter of home-versus-away. The Celtics have played much better within the confines of TD Garden but are now 1-5 on the road. The Cavaliers, conversely, improved to 9-3 in their last 12 home games against Boston (regular and postseason), dating back to the 2014-15 campaign. The Celtics are young and have less collective postseason experience than the Cavaliers, and Cleveland has a host of role players who have a tendency to play better in front of the home crowd.

The difference in Saturday night's game, however, came from the Cavaliers turning a quicker pace into an offense that thrived on ball movement (23 assists compared to Boston's 16) and a defense that looked as if Cleveland knew Boston's plays before they were even called.

Cleveland set out to limit Jaylen Brown's typically strong first quarters. And in the days leading up to Game 3, Lue and various players discussed playing faster and with increased ball movement.

"We were clearly not the harder-playing, more connected team tonight," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Cleveland was, and they deserve all the credit for that. I thought they played a great game. They came out and really moved it and were really tough, got into us defensively. I think a good example is we shot just a ton of hard pull-ups tonight. Credit them for that."

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 19: Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics goes to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers 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
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Winning three of the next four games is a less daunting task than the four of five that were needed heading into Saturday night. Monday night's Game 4 is also in Cleveland, and the subsequent games fall in an every-other-day fashion, leaving much less time for adjustments.

It's safe to expect the Celtics to learn from their mistakes and look more like the team that secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference than the one that had its doors blown off on a national stage. It's also safe to expect the Cavs to add a few more wrinkles to their game plan in hopes of throwing additional curveballs in Stevens' direction.

The blueprint is there. It's following its every measure that remains the game-to-game challenge.

"I think if you look at any box score throughout the postseason or throughout the regular season, if you're able to get four, five, six guys in double figures, most of the time that team is going to win," James said. "We can sit up here and say why doesn't it happen like that every game, but it's just not how the game works every game. But tonight was good ingredients of that for us to be able to get everybody involved."

Though third quarters have been the Cavaliers' downfall through much of the playoffs, Cleveland extended a 20-point halftime lead in the second half as Boston misses turned into additional points. The blowout allowed Lue to play James for just 38 minutes, with fellow All-Star Kevin Love only needing 30.

For as maddening as their play has been at times, the Cavaliers have excelled in one area: forgetting about what has taken place and focusing their efforts on what they should be. They were blown out in Games 1 and 6 against the Pacers only to win Games 2 and 7. During the regular season, the Celtics beat the Cavs by 14 in January only for Cleveland to win the subsequent matchup by 22 in February.

If being models of inconsistency has any silver lining, it's that awful nights like Games 1 and 2 can be followed up with the effort and execution of Game 3.

The rub, of course, is not reverting back to the habits that led to the initial 0-2 hole, instead using a dominant effort as a launching pad for future success.

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