I have seen the game that could convince LeBron James to leave Cleveland again, and it was Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The game in which LeBron had a 42-point triple double, and the Cavs STILL got blown out. Not beaten. Blown out. Worse yet, it didn’t seem to bother them.
The scoreboard said it was a 13-point Boston win, but in reality, the Celtics toyed with the Cavs. Toyed, taunted and trampled them, and the Cavs just stood back and let it all be. Accepted it virtually without protest.
For the second time in 48 hours the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions took their beating like good little cupcakes. They took it without putting up much of a fight in the last two quarters, when they were outscored 59-39.
Aside from some Tristan Thompson-Marcus Morris back-and-forth barking, the only sign of passion from the whine and scold was a dangerous cheap-shot push in the back of an airborne Al Horford by a somnolent J.R. Smith, who should have been ejected, but was inexplicably allowed to continue wandering his way through an otherwise invisible 27 minutes in which he scored as many points as you did.
Why Smith was on the floor for anything close to 27 minutes is known only to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, and the three officials who worked the game.
Most of the Cavs, meanwhile, did not “work the game” at all, and that’s their biggest problem as they return home down 2-0 to the feeding-frenzied Celts.
Here’s the deal that apparently caught the Cavs by surprise: When you go into a series against Boston, you better do so with a commitment to play hard. Because the Celtics will — for all four quarters. In Games 1 and 2, the Cavs rarely played hard against a team that never stops playing hard. That’s a good way to embarrass yourself, which is exactly what’s happened to Team LeBron.
Too many times in Games 1 and 2 — in which Boston outscored Cleveland by a combined 38 points — disinterested Cavs defenders casually watched from afar as a Boston shooter took his time to set his feet for an easy, uncontested three-point field goal.
Too many times in the first two games, a Boston player drove the lane unmolested for an unchallenged layup that was nonchalantly observed by multiple indifferent Cavs loitering nearby.
This kind of behavior, this absence of a will to vigorously and relentlessly compete, didn’t hurt the Cavs in their sweep of Toronto because Toronto beat them to it. The Raptors wrote the book on feeble “take us, we’re yours” competitive capitulation.
Going, however, from a series with Toronto to a series with Boston, is like trying to jump onto a speeding train from a skateboard. The Raptors just wanted to go home. The Celtics not only want to beat you, they want to beat you up. Humiliate you.
Actually, Boston allows their opponent to humiliate itself. Because the Celtics never take their foot off the gas at either end of the court, for 48 minutes. It’s up to their opponent to decide if they’re in or out.
The verdict on the Cavs in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals?
“Waiter! Check please!”
The Cavs may think they’re playing hard, but they’re not playing Boston Hard. Or perhaps the Cavs think that LeBron is the great equalizer. That the world’s greatest player will settle all accounts by the end of the game, and four wins later the Cavs are on their way to Warriorsland for the NBA Finals.
Well, this just in: If 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists aren’t enough to get it done, then now might be a good time for the LeBronettes to pick up an oar and start rowing.
And even that might not be enough.
The Cavs’ competitive spirit seems poisoned by a lethal dose of a Celtics team that is brilliantly coached and filled with a group of young, insatiable competitors, full of themselves, intoxicated by their potential, and driven by the sheer excitement of wanting to see, as a group and individually, how great they can be.
The Cavs are none of the above.
That kind of team, with that kind of profile, is fully capable of eating alive a lazy, ill-constructed, questionably motivated team that is overly reliant on The Player of the Century.
For said player, as he ponders his future, Game 2 of the Conference Finals had to be a sobering eye-opener. Sure, he’s brought his team back from down 3-1 to win it all against the 73-win Warriors two years ago. So being down 2-0 to Boston, with the next two games in Cleveland, isn’t impossible.
But this series already has a creepy, ominous feel to it.
Because Boston’s pulse is racing, and you wonder if the Cavs even have one.
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