Every key difference between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers revealed themselves once again on Tuesday night in Boston’s 107-94 victory.
The Celtics now lead the Cavaliers, 2-0, in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James, who recorded his third triple double of the 2018 postseason with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, just might be the best player on the planet.
Unlike in Game 1, he asserted himself early and often against the Celtics. But just like in Game 1, Boston was carried by different players at different points of the game, its abundance of scoring options something Cleveland could neither counter nor contain.
James, who had just 15 points in Sunday’s 108-83 loss, surpassed that total in the first quarter alone when he poured in 21.
Still, the Cavaliers led by just four points after 12 minutes. While LeBron shot 8 for 13 from the floor in the first quarter, his Cleveland teammates combined for six points on 3 for 11 shooting.
Jaylen Brown, who finished the game with 23 points, offered Boston’s strongest answer to LeBron in the first quarter with 14 of his own.
James appeared to injure his neck in a baseline collision with Jayson Tatum with under 4 minutes to go in the first half, briefly leaving the game for the locker room. Cleveland led by 11 at that point – its largest lead of the night – and maintained that cushion until James returned roughly 2 minutes later. The lead was down to seven by halftime, at 55-48 in favor of the Cavs.
The lasting impact of that injury – both in tonight’s game and for the remainder of the series – remains unclear. He still finished with the triple double, after all.
While James continued to have an impact, Terry Rozier’s 14-point outburst in the third quarter was able to create legitimate space between the Celtics and the Cavaliers. Along with Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris, Rozier led the 32-16 run that had Boston on top by the end of the third, 84-77.
Neither team shot particularly well at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Celtics blowing four chances to build on what became an 11-point lead while the Cavaliers didn't do enough to get closer than six points at 95-89 – a stretch which caused Brad Stevens to use a well-advised timeout.
"It was that point of the game where we needed to make plays," Al Horford said. "They went on a run and we felt like we needed to go on a run of our own and make sure we secured the win."
J.R. Smith, who finished with 0 points on 0 for 7 shooting in 27 minutes, likely officially ended any chances of a Cleveland comeback when he was charged with a flagrant foul on Horford with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter.
Smart lobbed up a pass for Horford around the rim; before he could finish the dunk, he was pushed in mid-air by Smith and fell to the ground behind the basket.
"That's not the first time JR has done some dirty stuff, especially playing against us," Smart said. "He's known for it, especially playing against us. We know that. So you know, it's like a bully, you keep letting a bully pick on you, he's going to pick on you until you finally stand up and that's what I tried to do. One of my guys was down, I took offense to it."
Horford was OK, while Smith and Smart had to be separated. Horford made both of his free throws to extend the Boston lead to 99-89; after Jeff Green was picked off by Brown, Horford made another layup to further leave the Cavaliers in the distance.
Horford had eight of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on Boston's comeback.
Kevin Love quietly had 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for Cleveland. Aside from him and Kyle Korver (11 points) few others helped the Cavalier cause.
Rozier finished with 18 points, while Morris (12), Jayson Tatum (11) and Smart (11) rounded out the group of six Celtics players in double figures.
"You feel good about all of those guys as guys that can make plays in big moments," Brad Stevens said of Boston's balance.
Boston is now 9-0 at home in the postseason.
Cleveland is 5-1 on its home court in the playoffs, its lone loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals vs. the Indiana Pacers.
"We have an opportunity to go back home and protect home court," James said, asked about his level of concern after stating he had "zero level of concern" following Game 1. "We're going to use these days to really dive in on what needs to be done to help our ball club be successful."
There’s now a lengthy layoff before Game 3, which is Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in Cleveland.