BOSTON — Remember when there were concerns about the Cleveland Cavaliers? Just six weeks ago, their 16-18 record after the All-Star break and 22nd-ranked defense were supposed to mean something. After 10 straight playoff wins in which they have looked downright dominant, those regular-season worries seem equal parts ancient and absurd.
Entering Game 2 of the conference finals on Friday, the Cavaliers talked up their opponent. They had blown Boston out in Game 1, sure, but they all said they expected the No. 1 seed to play better. Coach Tyronn Lue pointed out that the Celtics came back from a 2-0 deficit against the Chicago Bulls in the first round, praising them for their fight. LeBron James called them “a very resilient team.” Then the game started, and the Cavs once again made Boston look like it had no business being on the same court as them.
This version of Cleveland can go on a 10-0 run in the first quarter and make a game feel over. When that happens and then James sprints down the floor to take away a sure two points with a chase-down block, it’s only human nature to be demoralized. The Cavaliers shellshocked the Celtics, leading by an NBA playoff record 41 points at halftime. The final score was 130-86, and James was plus-46 in 33 minutes. When Boston was down by 46 heading into the final frame, coach Brad Stevens simply hoped the game would end as soon as possible without anybody getting injured.
After scoring 38 points with nine rebounds and seven assists in Game 1, James had said with a straight face that he didn’t feel great and would be better next time. Despite a comfortable win, he lamented that Cleveland had let Isaiah Thomas hit a 3-pointer off the dribble at the end of the half and let Avery Bradley make a couple of layups off backdoor cuts. These comments drew some laughs, but the Cavaliers really felt they’d improve. Second games are always easier, forward Richard Jefferson said, pointing to Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks last season, in which Cleveland set an NBA record by making 25 3-pointers.
James and his team were indeed even sharper the next time around. These were the Cavs in full.
“I think the thing is everybody in the world knows that they’re good,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said pregame. “We kind of go through the typical season progression of how good they are and then in March and April we’ve got to answer all the questions about what’s wrong with Cleveland, and it’s like, oh, they’re going to be fine, trust us, and then now they’re right who they are.”
Following the game, Stevens said he told his team that each game is worth one, regardless of how many points decide it. What else could he say?
This time last season, Cleveland had also started the playoffs 10-0, but its road to the finals was a different story. After wiping the floor with the Toronto Raptors in Games 1 and 2 of the ECF at home, it went on the road and lost two games. Before that, the Cavs’ first round series against the Detroit Pistons featured three close wins, and their clincher in the second round against the Atlanta Hawks was decided by a single point. The 73-win Golden State Warriors were seen as massive favorites heading into the NBA Finals, and when Cleveland fell down 3-1 against them, general manager David Griffin sent an email to everyone in the organization calling the Cavs “the NBA DRAMA KINGS.”
Griffin pointed out the different ways that Cleveland had made history since James returned. He argued that it was only right that the team would put itself in a situation that seemed impossible, then find a way to come out on top.
At Friday’s shootaround, James insisted there was no difference in the Cavs’ approach now that they’re the defending champions. If there is one, though, it’s that they have not waited until facing a dire situation in order to reach their peak. Cleveland swept the Indiana Pacers, wrecked the Raptors and are making the top-seeded Celtics look utterly helpless.
“There are a few teams in this league that are very similar to us in the sense that, if they play great, they’re next to impossible to beat,” Jefferson said. “So it’s our goal to make sure that they don’t play great, they only play good. And then if we play great, we win. So there’s a weird flow to it, but every team is trying to play great. If we play great, we don’t feel like there’s anyone that can beat us. And we’ve proven that.”
The stretches of the regular season where the Cavs looked bored, disinterested and disconnected defensively are gone. The days of Lue using makeshift lineups when shorthanded are over. Cleveland is healthy, in rhythm and executing its game plan. It does not plan to play with fire again.
“We’re just locked in,” Cleveland big man Channing Frye said. “We know what it feels like. We know how hard it is to get where we need to get, and I think when your leaders are that locked in, you just follow suit. And for all of us, we’ve been ready, staying ready and making sure that we’re doing what’s right and doing what’s needed to do to not get knocked in the mouth first, but to knock people in the mouth first and continue to build on that.”
In the last two games, the Cavs have placed an emphasis on running harder during their layup line at halftime. Lue has shortened his speeches so that they can get out of the locker room and back on the court to work up a sweat. They want to focus on starting games and halves well, even if they happen to lead by more than 40 points. They are worried about themselves, not whoever they happen to be playing against.
Entering the fourth quarter on Friday with an all-bench lineup, Cleveland made a conscious effort not to let Boston gain confidence. It did not want to be disrespectful and run up the score, but if Celtics guard Terry Rozier was going to use full-court pressure, then the Cavs were going to push the ball and be aggressive, Jefferson said. Stevens said that Cleveland was “playing the right way up 45 freaking points,” which was a “tremendous” example from which Boston could learn.
The unfortunate part about the Cavs putting it all together is that, without all the drama, their playoff games have been boring. The plus side is that perhaps the Finals won’t be. Everybody knows how the Warriors got better, but it now looks like Cleveland has, too.