Everybody knew what was coming in Game 2.
The Boston Celtics, up 1-0 in the Eastern Conference finals, were going to get LeBron James’ best punch. There’s a reason why James has won 23 consecutive playoff series in the East over eight seasons. The few times that James has encountered potential turning points in a series, his individual brilliance has propelled his team.
The Indiana Pacers saw it in Round 1, when James evened the series in Game 2 with a 46-point, 12-rebound, five-assist masterpiece. The Toronto Raptors gave away Game 1, then watched James eviscerate them with 43 points, eight rebounds, and 14 assists in Game 2.
Tuesday night against the Celtics, James delivered again. He put up a whopping 21 points in the first quarter on 8-of-13 shooting from the field. He posted up smaller players and scored at the rim. He made four threes in the first 12 minutes, each one with a seemingly increasing level of difficulty.
James was dominant. He played 39 minutes, and would have played more if he didn’t have to briefly head to the locker room in the second quarter with a neck strain after a collision with Jayson Tatum. He finished with 42 points, 10 rebounds, and 12 assists - the fifth career triple-double in the conference finals, more than any other player. It was his fifth 40-point game in these playoffs, the most he’s had in any postseason.
James did everything he needed to do in another historic performance - and it wasn’t close to enough in a 13-point loss.
The Cavaliers have been flawed all season. They finished 29th in defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Phoenix Suns - a team that wasn’t even trying to win en route to a 21-61 campaign that landed them the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery.
Despite significant roster turnover and players shuffling in and out of the lineup due to injuries, the Cavs managed to have a top-five offense thanks to the tried and true formula of putting the ball in James’ hands and surrounding him with shooters.
Though the Cavs entered the playoffs as the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions, they were vulnerable. The Isaiah Thomas experiment was blown up at the trade deadline, and the four players acquired in that flurry of February moves - Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and George Hill - combined to score five points on 1-for-7 shooting in Game 2. Clarkson was one of two active players who didn’t get off the bench.
Beyond the secondary scoring from Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and Tristan Thompson's presence on the boards, this Cavs squad is the true representation of just how far the best player in the league can carry a team when he has next to nothing.
James masked his team's flaws through the first two rounds of the playoffs - by the thinnest of margins in seven games against Indiana, and by a very wide margin in an increasingly inexplicable sweep of Toronto. But the Celtics aren't squandering chances to take control of the series like the Pacers did, and they’re not cowering before James like the Raptors did.
The Celtics are dictating the terms of this series. They’re making the Cavs uncomfortable. Marcus Morris, the latest to be labeled the LeBron stopper, has done an admirable job on James. Terry Rozier, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown have been fearless. Al Horford continues to be their unheralded star. Marcus Smart has been everywhere.
The Celtics are requiring the Cavaliers to play a complete game, to match their energy and depth over 48 minutes, and through two meetings, the Cavs have been unable to do so. The Celtics are faster, more athletic, and more skilled. It’s a problem James hasn’t been able to solve by himself.
In a way, James' remarkable performance Tuesday was the most discouraging part about the Cavaliers' loss. Cleveland could have lived with losing a second game in this series because of a subpar performance from its best player. But this has been the Cavs' trump card all season. When the odds are stacked against them, James is the one player capable of dispelling all the narratives about what's wrong with his team by simply being better than everyone else on the floor.
But now he’s facing an opponent that isn’t backing down, and seems every bit ready for the moment. The Cavs are revealing themselves to be who we thought they were for most of this season: a thin, inconsistent team held together by its best player - perhaps the only player who could carry such weight and push this group to another Finals appearance.
In order to get there for his eighth straight time, James needs to win four out of five games. Given his postseason history, count him out at your own risk. But the fact that LeBron, and LeBron alone, isn't enough to beat this Celtics team is becoming starker for these Cavaliers with every loss.
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)