LeBron James has clawed out of deficits before, but the talent gap between his current castmates and his opponent, the Boston Celtics, was eye-opening in Sunday’s 108-83 Boston win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The systematical evisceration began with a 17-0 run in the first quarter by the Celtics, which grew a lead as big as 28 points late in the first half. Even when the Cavaliers developed the tiniest amount of momentum to pull within 14 on a Jeff Green buzzer beater to end the third quarter, their hopeless outcome remained clear. Boston blitzed out of the gate to start to the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run, prompting Cleveland head coach Ty Lue to use a quick timeout just 1:09 in.
"I thought our guys were locked in, and we’re just going to have to be that again on Tuesday night," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said after the game.
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics in scoring with 23 points to go along with eight rebounds. Jayson Tatum’s streak of seven straight postseason games over 20 points came to an end, but he still managed 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting from the field and came down with six rebounds.
Al Horford made each of his first seven shots from the field and dished out six assists, finishing with 20 points in all.
Marcus Morris, inserted into the starting lineup for his defensive acumen against James, shined on the offensive side of the floor, too. His first double-double of the postseason consisted of 21 points and 10 rebounds – all in a day’s work while helping limit James to 15 points.
"I thought by committee, everybody worked hard," Stevens said, speaking to the contributions of other Celtics players who helped rattle James. "You just have to keep making it as hard as possible on LeBron. Easier said than done – he’s obviously not going to have many games like that. Their shooters around him won’t have many games like that."
The ghastly line by LeBron’s standards included seven turnovers – his most in a single game this postseason – and a 5-for-16 shooting performance from the field.
Like the rest of his team, James struggled from 3-point land, finishing 0-for-5.
"It’s a team effort, it’s not just me," Morris said of covering James. "Everyone played their part in guarding him. He’s obviously the best player in the game and you need multiple guys guarding him."
The Cavaliers didn’t make a single 3 in the first half and missed their first 14 in all. On the team’s first possession out of the break, during which it trailed 61-35, the shot clock trickled all the way down to one before JR Smith bricked a 30-foot 3-pointer.
James was passive at times during the Celtics’ hot streak to begin the game, going six straight possessions without attempting a shot in the midst of the run. Cleveland trailed 36-18 after a quarter – the largest deficit a team with James had ever faced in the first quarter of a conference final.
At other times he was downright disengaged. With Boston ahead 70-50, James missed a layup but thought he’d been fouled. Instead of tracking down Morris, who had grabbed the rebound, he stayed in the backcourt with his arms up, complaining to the officials, while Horford sank an easy layup of his own for the Celtics.
Kevin Love led Cleveland in scoring with 17 points on 5-for-14 shooting, while Rodney Hood (11) and Jordan Clarkson (10) found their way into double figures off the bench for the Cavs.
"I have zero level of concern at this stage," James said. "I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness. You can get better throughout the series. I’ve been down 0-1, I’ve been down 0-2. I’ve been down before in the postseason. For me, there’s no real level of concern no matter how bad I played tonight with seven turnovers, how inefficient I was shooting the ball."
Cleveland also lost Game 1 in its first round series against the Indiana Pacers – at home, no less, 98-80 – before ultimately winning the series in seven games.
"Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me," James said. "I’ve got a good sense of the way they played me today and how I’ll play going into Game 2."
As a team, Boston shot 51.2 percent (43-for-84) from the field. Cleveland shot 36 percent (31-for-86).
Boston has now won all eight of its home playoff games this season. Game 2 is Tuesday night at TD Garden at 8:30 p.m.