BOSTON — As Terry Rozier grabbed the long defensive rebound and raced toward the rim he noticed, out the corner of his left eye, LeBron James in hot pursuit. Instead of having his legs turn to rubber in anticipation of being a victim of another James dramatic chase-down, the Boston Celtics guard exploded to the rim and finished with a powerful one-hand slam.
Rozier couldn’t give a damn about James, who hit the brakes and offered no challenge.
As Jaylen Brown faced off defensively against James in the game’s opening minutes, the 14-time NBA All-Star — perhaps sensing a strength advantage — attempted to bully his way to the post position. Brown, with a little bump and grind, was enough of a deterrent that he was able to keep James out of the paint.
Brown had no desire to be passive against the NBA’s most intimidating player.
The record will show that James, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, had 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
And the record will show that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ star notched his fifth 40-point game of this postseason, and now has an NBA-best three career playoff triple-doubles where he’s scored at least 40 points.
But what’s been clearly revealed in Boston taking a 2-0 series advantage with Tuesday’s 107-94 win over the Cavaliers is that the fear factor used by James to terrorize Eastern Conference opponents as he’s reached the NBA Finals these last seven years is over.
What’s been behind the change with these Celtics?
“Losing to them all the time,” Rozier said. “We ain’t got nothing to lose.”
Flashback to just last season, and you understand why getting embarrassed by James and the Cavaliers is still fresh on Rozier’s mind. The Celtics entered last year’s Eastern Conference finals as the No. 1 seed but got destroyed at home by the Cavaliers in the first two games of the series.
How badly did James, who averaged 34 points in those opening games, gut the Celtics? The Cavaliers led by an astounding 41 points at halftime of Game 2 and the 130-86 final score in James’ mission to conquer, destroy and embarrass the Celtics remains the worst playoff loss by a No. 1 seed in NBA history.
Perhaps that complete humiliation is still fresh on the minds of the four Celtic players who were on the receiving end of that smackdown — Rozier, Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford. Each scored in double figures on Tuesday, and each played a major role in putting James in an 0-2 deficit in an Eastern Conference playoff series for the first time since the Cavaliers dropped the first two games of the 2008 conference finals against Boston (the Celtics won the series in seven games).
As his numbers indicate, James did plenty of damage against the Celtics in Game 2. Even as he was pushed and bodied from the game’s outset, James still scored 21 points in the opening quarter, hitting eight of 13 shots (four of seven on 3-pointers). The first-quarter points, field goal attempts and 3-pointers made all tied for the most in a quarter in the playoff career of James.
But it was how hard James had to work to score those 21 points that told the story. James was constantly pushed around in the paint, and two of those 3-pointers were heavily contested shots he took while fading away.
That 21-point first quarter — giving Cleveland a 27-23 first-quarter lead — was a pace he was unable to maintain. James would score 21 over the next three quarters.
“We made him work hard,” said Morris, who had 12 points, five rebounds and three assists. “He wasn’t getting easy layups, he was shooting fadeaway 3s. The shots he was making are shots we can live with.”
Remember the beginning of the series, when Morris made this claim that many considered to be outlandish: “Personally, I think I’m probably the best guy defending him in the league, outside of Kawhi Leonard.”
Give the man credit for holding true to his word. James has scored 11 points in the 56 plays where he’s been matched up with Morris, hitting four of 14 field goals and zero 3-pointers. In the 80 plays against other Boston defenders, James has scored 41 points, making 16 of 28 shots (and five of 10 3-pointers).
“We’ve got a lot of different guys guarding him,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “If you make it as hard as possible as long as possible, maybe you can get somewhere.”
Making it hard on James and his teammates with physical play — Cavs coach Tyronn Lue claimed the Celtics were “gooning the game up” — kept the Celtics within 55-48 at the half.
Boston blew the game open in the third quarter behind the scoring of Rozier, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the period (including that dunk when he ignored the presence of James).
“I started the game too passive, and I just wanted to be aggressive in the third,” Rozier said. “We pushed the pace in the third, and that was the difference.”
Another difference in the game: the backcourt dominance by Boston as Rozier and Brown (23 points, seven rebounds) combined to outscore Cleveland’s starting backcourt of J.R. Smith and George Hill by a lopsided 41-3. Smith was scoreless in 27 minutes, and wound up exchanging words and shoves with Smart after the Cleveland guard shoved Horford in the back on an alley-oop attempt.
“He’s in the air, he’s not even looking and you go and take two hands in the back?” Smart said of the flagrant foul. “That’s a dirty shot. That’s not the first time J.R. has done some dirty stuff, especially against us.”
So the Cleveland guards can’t score. And the Boston players — while respecting James — show no signs of cowering against basketball’s most intimidating player.
Where does that leave this series? The Celtics simply holding court in the first two games, with the next two in Cleveland beginning Saturday.
If James is overly concerned, he certainly wasn’t showing it after Game 2.
“How will I digest it? I’m going to go home, see my three kids, see my family, calibrate, see my mom,” he said. “I think I’m going to be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it.”
James knows the Celtics haven’t been a great road team this postseason (1-4 away from Boston in the first two rounds).
James understands that if the Cavaliers win the next two at home, this turns into a best-of-three series with different types of pressures mounted on the backs of the Celtics.
James has faced insurmountable odds in the playoffs before: He’s overcome some, and has fallen short in others.
He’s led two teams (Miami and Cleveland) to an incredible seven straight Eastern Conference titles.
But this year feels different. In having complete respect for The King, this Boston team has no desire to bend the knee and kiss the ring.
“We don’t back down from nobody, man,” Brown said. “It’s that simple.”
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