What a game, what a series! LeBron James went off early and often, putting the hometown Celtics on the ropes and making it look a heck of a lot like the Cleveland Cavaliers were more than ready to even the Eastern Conference Finals at one game apiece. But then, Boston buckled down and bullied their way back into the game, pulling away late to score a pivotal 107-94 victory in Game 2.
With the Cavs squarely on the ropes as this series heads back to The Land, let's identify the three most important things we learned tonight at TD Garden.
3. Rough-and-Tumble Role Players Star for the C's
The moment was properly encoded into memory when Jaylen Brown was seen slapping the floor on defense in the fourth quarter-- the grind-it-out Celtics may benefit from high-flying performances from graceful, super-athletic scoring threats Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier, but this was always a defense-first team, and the role players came out to play a supersized role on the night.
Show of hands if you had Marcus Smart (11 points, five rebounds, eight assists, plus-21) leading all players in plus-minus? How about Marcus Morris playing 34 minutes and getting it done on both ends, never backing down an inch? Difference-makers are coming out of the woodwork for Brad Stevens' team at the perfect time.
2. LeBron Actually Can't Do it by Himself
He'll continue to be the best player in any game he plays in until further notice. But much like the Hellfire Club's Sebastian Shaw (look it up or ask a nerd), the hard-nosed Celtics have found a way to absorb every last explosive riff of energy from King James (42 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) and fire it right back at the Cavs.
After racing out to an early double-digit lead thanks to 21 points from LeBron in the first quarter, Boston never panicked even for a moment. This is the natural limit of this Cavs team; Kevin Love had a fine game, but there just wasn't enough help. Rodney Hood is terrible and didn't even take a shot until a win was out of reach. Jordan Clarkson didn't play at all. JR Smith shot 0-7 from the field. The headlines practically write themselves.
1. OK to Bet on Boston to Win the Title Next Year
Believe it or not, the Cavaliers can still win this series; all they have to do is hold serve at home and steal one single game at TD Garden. But the odds are squarely against them now. That means it's safe to envision the Celtics playing for an NBA championship this season.
Spoiler alert: they won't win it. They can't. Not against the Warriors or, hey, maybe even the Rockets. But next year? Yeah, we'll be looking at the single most talented Celtics roster in 30 years.
Watching this young core coalesce around the understated brilliance of Al Horford (15 points, 10 boards, four assists, two steals, two blocks tonight) has been a delight. And now that they've proven they don't fear LeBron, the sky will soon be the limit.