INDEPENDENCE— They’ve survived amid turmoil for months, their season morphing into the NBA’s most compelling reality show — or, as some have called it, spectacle.
The must-watch Cleveland Cavaliers have been hardened by the nonstop drama around them. So it’s not a surprise they’re calm despite trailing the Boston Celtics 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.
“We know what it takes,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We’re down 0-2. No need to panic.”
“We know what we’ve got to do,” added All-Star forward Kevin Love on the eve of tonight’s Game 3.
The Cavs have been in dire straits before in the postseason.
Just two years ago, Cleveland trailed 2-0 and then 3-1 in the NBA Finals to Golden State before coming back to win in seven games and end the city’s 52-year championship drought. And back in the 2007 playoffs, LeBron James rallied the Cavs from a 2-0 deficit against Detroit, the hardwood king commencing his legacy by scoring Cleveland’s final 25 points during a Game 5 road win.
But while Cleveland has some comeback history on its side, Boston has momentum and the Celtics intend to keep it.
“We’re just gonna try to use it,” said forward Marcus Morris, “and ride it.”
As expected, James responded from a sub-par performance in Game 1 by scoring 42 points with 12 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 2. Still, the Cavs lost and the lack of production from several teammates, most notably guards J.R. Smith and George Hill. They have been totally outplayed by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier so far, and that could be deflating.
Not to the Celtics, who gained confidence in shrugging off James’ haymaker.
“That’s a game-changer in itself,” said Morris, one of the many defenders Celtics coach Brad Stevens is using on James. “LeBron came out and did everything he could. To his guys, they see that and they still came up short. That’s a feeling going back up, it kind of puts you in a mood you don’t want to be in.”
Speaking of moods. James, who hasn’t spoken to the media since Tuesday’s game, screamed an obscenity in frustration while working on his jump shot following practice. He made 12 straight before a miss, but James, who is seeking his eighth straight Finals, knows he’s going to need to be near perfect from here on out.
James, Love, Smith and Tristan Thompson are the only holdovers from Cleveland’s 2016 title team, which mounted its historic comeback in the Finals and now must rally again.
“I was talking to some of the guys in the training room and I was telling people it was already the Eastern Conference finals,” Smith said. “Being in this situation repetitively for the past couple years, I don’t want to say you get numb to it because you don’t want to take it for granted because obviously guys don’t have this opportunity too many times, but this season alone has been an extremely weird year and we just got to figure it out.”
To the outside world, Cleveland appears in trouble. They’re facing a younger, more physical team that has been written off several times already.
To the Cavs, this is just another bump in the road. They’ve already staved off elimination against Indiana.
“We played a Game 7,” Lue said. “The danger’s not like we come out and don’t play well tomorrow and lose, it’s over. We still have games to play. It’s not like it’s a Game 7. They did a good job taking care of their home court. They played well. Now we’re back at home.”
Road work ahead: The Celtics haven’t traveled well in these playoffs.
They’re just 1-4 outside Boston and their shooting percentages have dipped on trips to Milwaukee and Philadelphia. But after losing three road games to the Bucks in the first round, the young Celtics showed poise in stealing a Game 3 win in Philadelphia that has convinced them they can win in Cleveland.
“We’re pretty confident,” Brown said. “Just as confident as we are at home. It’s different between being on the road and at home, just the energy disparity. At home, it’s for you, away it’s against you. But if you do what you’re supposed to do and you are who you are, it’ll show home or away.”
Need for speed: The Cavs know they need to play faster. On too many occasions in Games 1 and 2, Cleveland was slow bringing the ball up the floor, which allowed the Celtics to get back and set up their defense.
Lue has been harping on his players to quicken the pace.
“We have to come out with a sense of urgency to attack early, don’t ease into the game or let this team off the hook,” Lue said after practice Friday. “We know they play well at home and they had two good games, so now it’s our turn.”