BOSTON — In the corner of the Celtics locker room, Marcus Smart scrolled through his phone. He found video of himself confronting J.R. Smith after the Cavaliers guard shoved Al Horford’s back on a lob late in the fourth quarter, earning a flagrant foul that sealed the C’s Game 2 win.
Smart smiled at his locker. He just submitted the Smart-iest of stat lines (11 points, 3-of-9 shooting, nine assists, five rebounds, four steals, three fouls and a plus-21 rating) in a 107-94 win that pushed LeBron James’ back to the wall in the Eastern Conference finals. He showed the video to Jaylen Brown two stalls over and said something to the effect of, “I almost lost it.”
“Glad you didn’t,” said Brown.
“I was like f*** that,” said Smart.
“He’s a fool,” Brown said of Smith.
At the podium, Smart added, “You just can’t allow that to keep happening. That’s not the first time J.R. has done some dirty stuff. He’s known for it, especially playing against us. We know that. It’s like a bully. You keep letting a bully pick on you, he’s going to pick on you until you finally stand up, and that’s what I tried to do. One of my guys was down, and I took offense to it.”
Five years ago, during the final playoff run of the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era, Smith elbowed Jason Terry in the face, receiving an ejection and a one-game suspension. His Knicks eliminated the Celtics in six games. Three years ago, during the first playoff run of the Brad Stevens era, Smith punched Jae Crowder in the face, buckling his knee and forcing offseason surgery. A two-game ban followed that ejection, but not before his Cavs finished off the sweep.
These Celtics aren’t those Celtics. Those teams — the decrepit roster that limped through the final playoff run of the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era and the torn-down rubble that followed in the first playoff run of the Brad Stevens era — were tough, sure, but these C’s are relentless.
The Cavs still have LeBron, but these young C’s never stop coming. They’re somehow more composed than the team starting four guys who have been to three straight NBA Finals, and LeBron now trails 0-2 in an East playoff series for the first time since losing to the 2008 champs.
“He’s a great player,” Brown said matter-of-factly. “We came out, played team ball, got the win.”
LeBron threw a haymaker in the first quarter, scoring 21 of Cleveland’s 27 points to let the C’s know he was still here. Brown stood his ground, countering with 14 points of his 23 points to keep the Celtics within striking distance, down just four entering the second quarter. Brown set a tone, rising up for a triple over LeBron on the C’s first possession, and never stopped humming.
“Don’t sit back and wait for him to punch us,” he said. “It was important for us to hit them first.”
Jayson Tatum joined Brown’s chorus in the second quarter, scoring nine of his 11 points in succession to match 37-year-old marksman Kyle Korver shot for shot and trim a 34-27 deficit to 39-36. These aren’t kids anymore. The Bucks series was like three seasons ago. Tatum, only six years removed from asking LeBron to follow a 14-year-old him back on Twitter, came face to face with a basketball hero — almost concussing him in the process — and made him blink.
“I got to be focused on our game plan,” said Tatum. “I can’t think about being on the court with LeBron, because then I won’t be focused. Everything gets thrown off. But I can look back on it as a great opportunity, playing against LeBron in my first year. It’s something I’ll remember.”
It was Terry Rozier’s turn in the third quarter. He dialed up the volume until the crowd exploded when he took a Brown outlet in transition, looked over his shoulder to see LeBron and — instead of accepting the inevitable chase-down block like so many before him — threw down a thunderous dunk that gave the Celtics a 74-71 lead after they had trailed by as many as 11 late in the first half. Rozier scored 14 of his 18 points in the frame, keying the C’s 36-point quarter.
It was then that the Heat’s Dwyane Wade — LeBron’s longtime teammate and Rozier’s childhood idol — tweeted, “It’s a cool thing to sit back and watch the Lil bro Scary Terry grow!!!”
A Celtics staffer showed Rozier the tweet after the game. “That’s bigtime, man,” Rozier told Parquet Post. “Everything’s just happening so fast. D-Wade was a guy I idolized. I used to be in the gym by myself and just fall on purpose, because he used to always fall at a young age.”
Rozier met Wade when he was at Louisville and the Heat played a preseason game there. He had him sign a jersey and one of his seven pairs of Li-Nings. They’ve remained in touch since.
“I know one thing: When we met each other, he knew how much I idolized him, how much I watched him and stuff like that,” added Rozier. “That’s my favorite player ever. Him and Allen Iverson. Like I said, everything’s happening so fast, coming full circle. It’s just all blessings.”
It was only two months ago that Rozier was known as Kyrie Irving’s backup in Boston. Now he’s the starting point guard for a team that’s within two games of the Finals. Scary Terry, conqueror of Eric Bledsoe and Joel Embiid, resurrector of Drew Bledsoe and a branded playoff star in his own right. Everything’s happening so fast. Brown, Tatum and Rozier are taking turns grinding LeBron’s Cavaliers into dust. They weren’t supposed to be this good, this early, but here we are.
And when the young guns were through, Al Horford took them home in the fourth quarter, scoring eight straight points with less than five minutes remaining to push the C’s lead to 14, and then finding Rozier for a layup that made Jeff Green quit with two minutes still to play. The Cavaliers called timeout, the scrubs came in, and the Celtics didn’t even have enough healthy bodies to field a proper garbage-time lineup. Gino on the Jumbotron was the last man standing.
“That’s Al,” said Marcus Morris. “He’s our closer.”
Between the bursts from Boston’s four horsemen were uppercuts from everyone else. There was Smart’s dustup with Smith, of course, but Aron Baynes wrestled Larry Nance to the floor, and Morris screamed “and one” so loud in Tristan Thompson’s face after a foul that the Cavs center retaliated. But Mook was too busy celebrating the deficit he’d just wiped clean to notice.
Asked about it afterwards, Thompson said, “Does it matter? I’m not a chatty Patty, so you can ask him that. That shit doesn’t matter to me.” It sure seemed like it bothered him at the time.
We did ask Morris about it, and here’s how he put it: “Strong move from a strong dude, man.”
Morris’ twin Markieff was there, wearing his brother’s jersey, even though he plays for the Wizards, and he had his own assessment: “If shit ain’t right, shit ain’t right.” I’m not entirely sure what that even means, but nothing about these Celtics makes sense, so maybe it’s perfect.
“We’ve got to be tougher,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after his team unraveled. “I think they’re playing tougher than we are. We see that. They’re being physical. They’re gooning the game up, and we’ve got to do the same thing. We’ve got to be tougher, mentally and physically.”
“Gooning?” Mook responded. “That’s a good word, man. Shit, we’re doing what it takes. Whatever it takes. You know what I mean? Every player 1-15, whatever it takes. That’s what we’re going to do. You call it what you want to call it, but we’re just trying to get the win.”
The Celtics were a stark contrast to a Cavalierss team that started the fourth quarter with George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood, Jeff Green and Larry Nance on the floor — a lifeless quintet that made you wonder how Cleveland made it this far. You remember LeBron carried them here, but even his 42-10-12 line wasn’t enough. The Cavs have trouble reconciling that.
“We were horrible defensively,” said Thompson, who was supposed to be Cleveland’s big counter to Boston’s toughness. “We were terrible defensively. We played like shit defensively.”
LeBron came out with his best shot in Game 2, and the Celtics rope-a-doped him. Soon enough, his early layups became fadeaways, the fadeaways became 30-footers, and the 30-footers became passive play on both ends. LeBron knows when Cleveland is broken before you do.
“LeBron got off to a great start early in the game,” said Morris, who had 12 points, five rebounds and three assists, “but we did a great job making him work for every shot. Just continue to wear him down, wear him down, wear him down, and then in the third quarter we jumped out on him.”
When did Morris know the Cavs had been broken? “Probably when I got that and-one,” he said.
Never forget this is still LeBron, the Celtics only held serve at home, and the Milwaukee series looked similarly lopsided after two games. Cleveland could easily come back to Boston on Wednesday tied 2-2, but it sure feels like the students have become the masters. As much as we might write off the Cavs between now and Saturday’s Game 3, these C’s are well beyond their years, and they’re not about to call the fight until the prizefighter is knocked out for good.
“We’ve got two more wins to go,” said Brown. “We can talk about it. Y’all going to write about it. Media’s going to say whatever. At the end of the day, it’s the first to four. Simple.”
The Cavaliers have LeBron, but the Celtics have a cavalry, and there’s no fear in their eyes.
“Three days before we ride again,” said Baynes on his way to the shower.