BOSTON — Just over 30 seconds remained in quite literally the most dominant first-half postseason performance in NBA history, and Isaiah Thomas still gingerly walked the ball up the floor. Each dribble bounced with an overwhelming sense of defeat. Forget sense of urgency, Boston lacked any noteworthy sense of a pulse. The Cavaliers’ 39-point lead had long since surpassed the Celtics’ total points scored, yet the East’s No. 1 seed failed to even initiate any action in their final possession of the opening half.
Thomas pounded the shot clock down to eight seconds before waving off a Kelly Olynyk screen. The miscommunication merely fed the beast of Cleveland’s blitzing defense. Kevin Love shuffled his feet to close off any semblance of a lane for penetration. Tristan Thompson shifted over from the weakside to tag Olynyk’s roll. Thomas could only toss the ball over to Avery Bradley on the left wing as nothing but a safety valve, J.R. Smith’s closeout arriving perfectly. When Bradley returned the ball to Thomas, Kyrie Irving stood, prepared. He nearly bit on Thomas’ theatric shot fake, but recovered and rendered the Celtics’ recently-minted All-NBA point guard into nothing but a praying man just inside the three-point line.
The possession sucked whatever energy that remained out of TD Garden. Smith promptly awoke the dreary crowd with a ridiculous, turning fallaway jumper at the buzzer to give Cleveland an NBA-record 41-point halftime lead. The Cavs cruised to a 130-86 victory and a 2-0 series lead as Thomas ultimately did not return for second half action due to a right hip strain.
Cleveland’s offense, and LeBron James in particular, torched Boston, but the Cavs’ defensive blitz kindled the inferno. Hip strain aside, Thomas has been completely engulfed. Cleveland doesn’t even bat an eyelash at the Celtics’ shooters. Al Horford just rolls into the oblivion of Cleveland’s rotation and Olynyk pops into a distant territory Thomas can’t locate through the Cavs’ trapping limbs. And James is always lurking in the shadows ready to smite any shot at the rim.
“If you’re a hard shower or a blitzing team, that’s the way you rotate,” Brad Stevens said. “You have to be great about getting the ball out of the blitz quickly and then you have to be great about flashing into the open spots.”
The defensive ferocity has fueled perhaps James’s greatest offensive demolition of his career. “It really set the tone to start the game and that really opened up our offense for us,” Cavs coach Ty Lue said. “It gets us activated,” James Jones told SI.com. “It allows us to get into a more aggressive mindset for the offensive end.” The Celtics shot just 6-21 in the opening frame and Cleveland gobbled every fruitless possession to trounce down the floor. When James didn’t orchestrate a fast break to perfection, the Cavs eased off the gas, surveyed Boston’s frazzled transition defense and fed whichever cross matchup seemed most appetizing.
James registered a plus-45 in his 33 masterful minutes. His dominant 30 points, on 12-18 shooting, seven assists, four rebounds and three blocks served as quite the response to being left off the shortlist for MVP finalists. “I look at LeBron like Shaq: Every year he’s the MVP,” Lue said.
“My only job is to try to be the MVP for this team every night, and put my teammates, put our franchise in position to be successful and ultimately compete for a championship,” James said. “I know what I bring to the table and this league knows what I bring to the table.”
On Friday afternoon, Shawn Marion told The Crossover the Dallas Mavericks strove to shrink the floor, forcing James and the Miami Heat into halfcourt sets during the 2011 NBA Finals. The old adage used to ring through NBA locker rooms: If you could stymie James’s drives and turn him into a jump shooter, victory was yours. Celtics legend and former head coach Tommy Heinsohn told The Crossover prior to Game 2 that Boston could slow the Cavs’ attack by sealing off James’s complimentary shooters. Hopefully, 48 minutes of James bulldozing into a rotating cast of isolated Celtics defenders would drain his energy as much as he bruised his opponents.
James essentially mocked both philosophies in Game 2. He drilled 4-6 three-pointers, several of which he launched off swaying pull-ups. No matter what defensive look the Celtics threw at James—Boston switched to a pack line, zone-like defense in the second quarter—James managed to beat whichever Celtic stood in front of him. Boston simply does not roster a player who can consistently deter James and any collective effort yields an open weak side triple. The Cavs’ drained 19-39 of those outside attempts in Game 2. “I told you we had another level,” James said.
Cleveland pulled its starters holding a 99-53 edge with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter, initiating a line of choreographed secret handshakes on the bench. “It’s definitely a low point for our group,” Al Horford said. This postseason has certainly been the low point for the Eastern Conference’s quest to vanquish James. On the cusp of a seventh-straight Finals trip, James has found no true challenger in his conference. Should these Golden State Warriors also fail to curtail his reign, it will be apt to ask if any team in history could thwart the 2017 version of LeBron James.