By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Usually, LeBron James sets the tone in Game 1 of a playoff series by marking his territory.
But the Celtics weren’t going to let that happen Sunday afternoon at TD Garden. Boston’s near-dominant defense frustrated James and the Cavaliers right from the get-go in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, punishing James for one of the worst Game 1 defeats of his career.
The Celtics held the Cavaliers to just 83 points, the same Cavaliers team that averaged 118.5 points per game during their four-game sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the second round. Boston’s suffocating defense held Cleveland to just 36 percent shooting from the field and an abysmal 15.4 percent (4-for-26) from three-point range.
The most impressive facet of the victory is the fact the Celtics actually contained James during his 36 minutes on the floor, which appeared to be an impossible task given how James just had one of his best postseason stretches in demolishing the Raptors in the conference semis. The best player in the world finished with just 15 points (the fewest he’s scored this postseason) on 5-for-16 shooting, missing all five of his attempts from downtown. He turned the ball over seven times and finished minus-32 in the 108-83 thumping by Boston.
The Celtics sent several different defenders and switches at James, with Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart all spending time in front of him on defense. But they mostly relied on notorious LeBron frustrator Marcus Morris. That reputation earned him a spot in Brad Stevens’ starting lineup, despite a recent string of offensive struggles. Morris rewarded his coach with some stellar defense on James, holding him to just eight points on the 39 possessions he went toe-to-toe with The King. Not bad for a guy who picked up a pair of early fouls.
Morris said Saturday he was the second-best player in the NBA in terms of defending James, and he certainly lived up to that moniker on Sunday. And when his career is over and he’s sitting around telling tales of his playing days to his grandchildren, Sunday is one he’ll look back on quite fondly.
“He’s the best player, you know?” Morris said of James. “I’m going to be able to tell my kids this one day. It’s exciting. I love the challenge.”
Morris was also quick to praise his teammates after the Boston victory.
“It’s a team effort, man,” said Morris, who finished as a plus-25 in his 34 minutes of action. “It’s not just me. Everybody played their part in guarding him. He’s obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him an entire game. I just think we did a great job of that.”
“I thought by committee everybody worked hard,” said Stevens. “You just have to keep making it as hard as possible on LeBron. Easier said than done. He’s obviously not going to have many games like that. Their shooters around him won’t have many games like that. But I thought our guys were locked in.”
Morris was also a force on offense, netting 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting to go with a postseason career-high 10 rebounds. He was one of four Celtics players to score double digit points on Sunday, with Brown leading Boston’s balanced attack with 23.
James was hardly the only Cavaliers flustered by Boston’s aggressive D. Kevin Love shot just 5-for-14 from the floor, and 1-for-4 from three-point range, to finish with 16 points. J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver were a combined 4-for-15, hitting just one of their eight three-point attempts.
Boston set the tone from the opening tip and never let up. They simply had more fight than the Cavaliers on Sunday and went for the kill early and often. It started with a 17-0 run in the first quarter, which ended as a 25-2 landslide for the C’s. Even when they were up 23 with just a few minutes to go until halftime, the hustle never ceased. Brown swatted away a Love layup, sending it toward the Cavaliers bench. Morris hustled to save the ball, diving into the Cleveland bench in the process. Brown drove up the court, and eventually finished off the possession with a stepback over Korver. It was defense setting up offense, and it happened throughout Game 1.
It was clear the Celtics weren’t going to take their foot off the gas, and they sent a message with a dominant Game 1 win, whether their players want to admit it or not.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Brown said of sending a message. “We were just playing basketball. We’re looking forward to Game 2. We stayed together. We were the more connected team. If we continue to stay together, we’ll be fine.”
Chances are James will eventually break free (he’s not worried — at all — about Sunday’s performance) and the Cavaliers as a whole won’t shoot as poorly as they did in Game 1. James is still the best player on the planet and a threat to take over any game, and any series for that matter. But the Celtics were ready to throw the first punch on Sunday and Cleveland wasn’t able to react or retaliate.
As the basketball world continues to count them out, the Celtics made it clear they aren’t going to go down without a fight.