BOSTON — Jaylen Brown left the Garden with a cigar and a pizza.
The 21-year-old Celtics wing wouldn’t say what it was for, but if he were to celebrate like Red Auerbach, who could blame him. He just outplayed LeBron James in a 108-83 win, handing him his worst Eastern Conference finals defeat since a Game 1 loss to the Bulls seven years ago.
LeBron had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh then. He has Kevin Love and spare parts now.
You can go back and forth all day about whether or not his Cavaliers are for real. Are they the team that nearly lost to the Pacers in the first round? Or are they the team that swept the Raptors in the conference semifinals? Are they the team that just laid an egg in the series opener against the Celtics? Or are we going to see a different Cleveland team show in Game 2?
“Indiana punched us in the mouth too in Game 1,” said James. Teammate Kyle Korver also likened Sunday’s loss to their opener against Indiana, suggesting this was no fluke. The Pacers gave the Cavs all they could handle in the first round, and they’ve got nothing on these Celtics.
We know what LeBron is capable of, but there are questions there, too, given his uncertain future. Is he the guy who looked disengaged in the conference finals for the first time in forever, who sat in silence at his locker, noticeably detached from teammates, a group of whom laughed a few feet away in the corner? Or is he the guy who said with confidence from the podium, “I have zero level of concern at this stage. I didn’t go to college, so it’s not March Madness.”
LeBron was decidedly not good on Sunday. He scored 15 points on 16 shots, missing all five of his 3-pointers, getting to the free-throw line just six times and committing seven turnovers. After Marcus Morris provided some bulletin-board material, telling reporters on Saturday he was the league’s best LeBron stopper outside of Kawhi Leonard, James never attacked Morris, refused to close out on shooters and prioritized officiating complaints over getting back on defense.
After the loss and before he took the podium, LeBron seemed at ease, seeking out Jayson Tatum‘s father, giving him a hug and sharing a laugh. They looked about the same age. We think Tatum and Brown are well before for the primes, still so young, on the precipice of superstardom, and they are. They’ve also grown exponentially with each series and are now completely unafraid of the moment, if they ever were. They are already stars. They are here. They’ve arrived.
Even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, both on the end of the Celtics bench for this one, the Celtics still have a Big Three in Brown, Tatum and Al Horford, and you can throw Terry Rozier in as a fourth on most nights. We’ve seen enough to know this is the reality in Boston now.
“Our young guys are special, man,” said Morris. “They’ve been showing it all year. I know for sure we don’t expect anything less. I know you guys consider them young players, which they are, but their mentality and the way they carry themselves is basically like veterans in this league. Like I said, they’ve been doing it all year, so we’re not surprised at whatever they do.”
You will not win a whole lot of games when you’re on the wrong end of a mismatch at four spots in the lineup, and you have no chance when you get beat everywhere on the court. Brown (23 points on 16 shots) outplayed LeBron, and the C’s brutally attacked Cleveland everywhere else.
“Jaylen talks a lot of trash,“ said Marcus Smart. “He don’t care who you are. It’s no surprise he comes out and does what he does. No fear or remorse about it. We have to keep that all in us.”
“We stayed together,” added Brown, “and we were the more connected team.”
And the coaching matchup? A bloodbath. The Cavs called three timeouts as the Celtics ripped a 25-2 run in the first quarter that ballooned to a 28-point lead late in the second. Their answer each time was a contested jumper — from George Hill, Rodney Hood and then Love. Their first offensive set of the third quarter? An errant J.R. Smith heave before the shot clock expired.
Meanwhile, Brad Stevens called a timeout with his team up 11-7 five minutes into the game, just because he didn’t like how a play was unfolding. The message from the Celtics coach was clear: Every possession matters. The result was a wide-open Brown jumper and a 14-0 run.
“That’s Brad Stevens basketball,” said Love.
When the Celtics took their foot off the pedal at the end of the third quarter, allowing Cleveland to cut that 28-point lead in half, they responded with a 7-0 run to start the fourth that embodied everything we’ve come to love about this team and every reason we should still believe in them. Morris followed his own miss with a dunk, as Jeff Green served as a spectator. Morris forced a turnover, and Smart drilled a corner 3, as LeBron watched flat-footed. LeBron threw a lazy pass, and Tatum took the turnover 94 feet for a layup, as the Cavs cleared the lane for him.
LeBron recalled every bit of that sequence, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
Stevens walked off the court after the blowout win as stoic as ever, even as he entered the tunnel with black curtains between him and the press, the spot to crack a smile if ever there was a moment to enjoy this one. Instead, he said, “We’ve got a lot of room to improve from tonight.”
It’s hardly Cavs coach Tyronn Lue’s fault. His defense is a disaster, and that’s an insult to disasters. They were this bad for long stretches of the season — all season, really, finishing barely better than the Suns’ league-worst defense. The Celtics liked their odds with Horford opposite Love, Tatum against Smith and Brown on Kyle Korver. They didn’t mind Rozier facing Hill, and they even picked on LeBron, who just wandered off Morris on several occasions.
Oh, and the Celtics loved when Hood and Jordan Clarkson came off the bench.
What does Cleveland need to do better in Game 2? “Pretty much everything,” said Korver.
The Cavaliers talked of adjustments for Tuesday night in Boston, but the possibilities are few. They missed their first 14 triples. That should improve, but the Celtics defended the 3-point line better than any other team all season, and Stevens sees a window to close there. The Cavs could move Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup, but Aron Baynes is an easy counter.
“We’re looking forward to Game 2,” said Brown. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Here’s what we learned from Game 1: These Celtics are for real, and we don’t know if the Cavs are. Don’t light that victory cigar just yet, but it’s good to have one on hand after a win like that.