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LeBron James and the Cavs remind the Celtics what they can do

LeBron James and the Cavs remind the Celtics what they can do

CLEVELAND – Maybe the Boston Celtics win Game 4 of these Eastern Conference finals, maybe they go home and clinch the series in Game 5. Maybe by the middle of next week, the narrative of this team — a young group of upstarts who survived the loss of its All-Star backcourt to make one of the most improbable Finals runs in NBA history — is restored. It’s possible. The Celtics — who shot 39.2 percent from the floor, 27.3 percent from 3-point range and never led in Saturday’s 116-86 drubbing — couldn’t play worse than they did in Game 3. And the Cleveland Cavaliers, with six players in double figures and a defense that was flying around the floor, likely can’t play better.

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But if there’s a lesson to be learned from Saturday’s slaughter, it’s this: When LeBron James plays great, Cleveland is tough. When LeBron’s teammates show up, the Cavs are unbeatable — in the Eastern Conference, anyway.

Looking for a silver lining for the Celtics in this Boston massacre? Good luck finding one. Jaylen Brown — the star of the first two games of this series — had one of his worst games of the playoffs. Noting that Brown is an excellent first-quarter scorer, the Cavs keyed on him with James closing out hard, forcing Brown to put the ball on the floor, cutting off his drives to the basket and making him play in a crowd. It worked. Brown had two points in the first half, the only time the outcome was ever in doubt.

“I just don’t think they let me catch the ball,” Brown said. “They were denying me. They didn’t want me to get the ball, and when I did get it, it wasn’t in the position I was comfortable in.”

What got into Cleveland? Game 3 of a series is typically a home-friendly one, especially when the home team is in a 2-0 hole. No team in NBA playoff history has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit, so Boston knew it would get the desperate Cavs’ best shot. Cleveland has proven capable of producing great offense. A 22-point win in Boston in February, when the Cavs’ reshaped roster produced seven players in double figures, is evidence of that. James’ 27-point, 12-assist performance Saturday night wasn’t surprising. A top-five scoring offense in the regular season busting out for 116 points wasn’t either.

But defense? A great defensive night in Cleveland is rarer than a royal wedding. But for 48 minutes on Saturday the Cavs flustered Brown, stifled Terry Rozier (13 points) and forced Marcus Morris (a team-worst minus-28) into a horrific shooting night. Midway through the first quarter, Celtics coach Brad Stevens inserted Guerschon Yabusele — who had played nine minutes the entire postseason entering Game 3 — and minutes later Stevens dusted off Greg Monroe, hoping the offensive-minded big man would provide a spark in the paint.

The result: He didn’t.

“We were clearly not as good as we had been,” Stevens said. “We were going to have to steal minutes with some guys. Right now, with the way that they are playing, we’re going to need some other guys to be ready to go on Monday.”

So what gives? How does a Cavs team that was blitzed for 108 points in Game 1 and 107 in Game 2 produce this type of defensive effort?

LeBron?

“I don’t know,” James said.

Kevin Love?

“I don’t know, either,” Love said.

So after a game that was effectively over after the first quarter, both teams have to wonder: What’s sustainable? Boston credited the Cavs’ defense while acknowledging that its offense was uncharacteristically isolation-heavy. “We need to do a better job moving the ball,” Al Horford said. “I think if we move the ball better, we will all benefit from that, and it will be better.”

  and in the first two games of this ser

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