BOSTON — Dumb. Just dumb, dumb, dumb.
On Tuesday night in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, Cavaliers star LeBron James nearly overcame a focused, disciplined Boston defense with 21 first-quarter points and a 42-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound triple-double. He nearly overcame the rest of his teammates shooting 5-for-20 from the 3-point line. He nearly overcame another brilliant start from Boston’s Jaylen Brown and equally brilliant finishes from Terry Rozier and Al Horford.
But he could not overcome the hefty helping of stupidity shoveled out by his teammates and coach on this night.
That, ultimately, opened the way for the Celtics to come back and win, 107-94, a game Cleveland controlled for the first half and the first two minutes of the third quarter. And it’s left the Cavs with two opening losses in this series, the first time James has faced an 0-2 deficit against an East foe since 2008.
“I’m going to go home tonight and see my three kids, see my family, recalibrate, see my mom,” James said after the game. “I think I’ll be fine. I’m not going to lose sleep over it. You go out and when you lay everything on the line, at the end of the day, you can live with that.
“I’ll recalibrate as far as how I can help this team continue to be successful, how I can do some things to make us be even more complete.”
It’s generous of James to take the responsibility for this loss, to assert that his game was not complete enough. There wasn’t much lacking from James on Tuesday. What was lacking was functional gray matter from those surrounding James.
Begin with JR Smith, who had 15 seconds worth of brain freeze that catapulted Cleveland into this loss. With 4:04 to play in the fourth quarter and the Cavs hanging in, trailing by eight points, Smith launched a contested, hurried 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds on the shot clock — after having dribbled aimlessly for seven-plus seconds while being hounded by Marcus Smart.
The shot missed, and on the next Celtics possession, Smith unwisely shoved Horford from behind on a driving attempt, a flagrant-1 foul. Horford made the two free throws, and added a reverse layup 12 seconds later, pushing Boston ahead by 12 points, a gap the Cavs never would close.
Smart confronted Smith after the play, which not only got Horford fired up, but got Smart amped up and ignited an otherwise nervous crowd.
It was a dumb play.
“I just looked at it, Al is a defenseless person,” Smart said. “He's in the air. He can't control how his body goes, and he's not even looking, and you go and take two hands to the back, that's a dirty shot. You just can't allow that to keep happening.
Marcus Smart had Al Horford's back. pic.twitter.com/Q18NctWeSD
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 16, 2018
“That's not the first time JR has done some dirty stuff, especially playing against us. He's known for it, especially playing against us. We know that.”
There was also the matter of why Smith was still playing at that point. On the night, Smith was scoreless, going 0-for-7 from the field. He should not have been on the floor at all, not when the Cavs needed scoring. But coach Tyronn Lue stuck with Smith for 27 minutes, giving just 21 minutes to Kyle Korver, who had 11 points and was 4-for-8 from the field (2-for-5 on 3s).
Lue was asked about that less-than-stellar decision.
“He’s taken big shots,” Lue said, which is as true of Korver as it is of Smith. “He’s made big shots for us. No matter what he's shooting in the game, we know he can get going at any point in time, so that's the reason.”
Smith acknowledged the silliness of his decision.
“I blatantly pushed him,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like I was trying to low bridge him or something, I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get it. It was a good, hard foul. I understand why they gave me a flag there.”
There was more run-of-the mill dumbness from this team, especially down the stretch of the game. There were four fouls committed in the first 3:39 of the fourth quarter, which put Boston into the bonus early and led to the Celtics taking 11 fourth-quarter free throws, making nine of them and mitigating that team’s 30.4 percent shooting. There were six turnovers in the fourth quarter. There were five Celtics offensive rebounds, to none for Cleveland.
The Cavs were drowning in their own stupidity late in Game 2, but James insisted they’d not lost their composure.
“I don’t think so,” James said. “I think that’s easy to say. I think we had some good looks, we had a two-possession game, down six, we had a great trap in the corner on Jaylen Brown. I felt like we played great defense, but the foul was called on Al Horford. He goes and makes two, we don’t score, and it kind of sent it back to a 10-point game after that.”
It got back to 10 points, though, because of poor decisions made by the Cavs in Game 2. It had the makings of a James masterpiece in the first half, the kind of heavyweight punch Boston coach Brad Stevens had warned about on Sunday night.
But things unraveled as the game wore on. James was poised to beat the Celtics nearly single-handedly on Tuesday, to beat the schemes of Stevens and flummox defenders like Marcus Morris, who had been allowed to do too much preening after the way he limited James in Game 1.
James overcame all that. We all expected he would. But ultimately, against a Boston team that continues to impress, even James could not overcome the dumb plays of his own teammates.