BOSTON — It ended up representing one fifth of one percent of the game action that took place on the TD Garden floor Sunday afternoon, but Jaylen Brown’s layup six seconds into the contest proved to be much more than just a quick start for the Boston Celtics in their Eastern Conference Finals redux with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With that layup, last year’s domination by the Cavaliers over Boston was officially interred, reduced to a distant memory. The young Celtics, many of whom still carrying the scars from the 2017 humiliation at the hands of the Cavaliers, look more than prepared to end LeBron James’ four-year dominion over the Eastern Conference.
Boston’s 108-83 victory over Cleveland in Game 1 of the conference finals was in the bag by the end of the game’s first 12 minutes, as the Celtics raced out to a 21-point lead on their way to doubling up the Cavaliers, 36-18, by the end of the quarter. That is in stark contrast to last season’s series between the teams, when Boston, on its way to being destroyed by the Cavaliers in five games, did not possess the lead for even a single second in losing all three games to Cleveland at TD Garden, all while being the No. 1 seed in the conference.
That bit of ignominy was taken care of in the first six seconds of this series by Brown, who took two defenders to the basket for a layup immediately after possessing the ball from Al Horford’s tip. That opening basket, two of Brown’s game-high 23 points, acted as much as an opening salvo than anything else, something from which Cleveland barely recovered from.
“It was very important,” said Brown about establishing home court against the Cavaliers, who had won five consecutive playoffs games at TD Garden before Sunday. “It was very important. Last year, if you look at it, they won two games here, at home, when we were the one seed. We are the two seed this year, they came in and we got a big win on our home court. Just the shift in mindset from last year to this year has been great and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
It wasn’t just the Celtics who felt that those first few seconds was their way to throwing down the gauntlet for the game and, potentially, this entire series.
“I think it started from their momentum and what they wanted to do started from the tip ball,” said James, who scored a 2018 playoff-low 15 points and committed seven turnovers while also posting seven rebounds and nine assists. “Horford tipped it right to Jaylen Brown and it looked like we had two on them, and next thing you know he’s getting a lay-up right off the tip. So that kind of set the tone right there.”
Much more has changed in one year’s time for the Celtics than just mindset, however. It helps that one of last season’s tormentors in that series, Kyrie Irving, now is with Boston, though he remains in street clothes after knee surgery. However, two players who were in uniform today but not in Celtic green last year had huge impacts; Veteran forward Marcus Morris responded to his first career postseason start by posting 21 points and 10 rebounds while rookie Jayson Tatum, despite having his streak of 20-point games snapped, still went for 16 points while hitting six of his 11 shots from the field.
The decision to start Morris over regular starter Aron Baynes was in large part to having the former start the game defending James, as Morris made headlines before the series by saying he was the best at defending LeBron in the NBA outside of the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard.
Maybe he was on to something. According to ESPN Research, James scored 5 points on 2-of-6 shooting with two assists and a turnover on the 24 plays in which he was defended by Morris. In other words, Morris walked the talk.
“Because I’m a competitor,” Morris said when asked why he looked forward to guarding LeBron. “He’s the best player, you know? I’m going to be able to tell my kids this one day. It’s exciting. I love the challenge, but, like I said, man, it’s a team effort.”
At only one point after the Celtics first built a double-digit lead that the Cavaliers posed a serious threat, ending the third quarter on a 27-13 run to cut Boston’s 28-point lead in half at 78-64. However, unlike their playoff games last season, Boston responded to this Cleveland run, starting the fourth quarter by scoring seven unanswered points – a Morris dunk off of an offensive rebound, a Marcus Smart three-pointer and a coast-to-coast layup by Tatum – to officially put the competitive nature of the game to bed.
Those who played with the Celtics last year knew the importance of responding to Cleveland’s push, knowing that they had capitulated time and again every time the Cavaliers made any sort of push in an effort to establish control of almost every game in the series in 2017.
“We had our moments where we really played well with poise,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told A Lot of Sports Talk. “We were down 16 in the game we won at Cleveland [in last season’s playoffs]. But the couple of games here didn’t go our way, and I thought we just weren’t able to make it more interesting. So I think that being able to respond to the next run is really important. You know, the guys that are back, I think, echo in that all the way through.”
Interestingly enough, Cleveland had just come off of a series in which, for the most part, it had its own way during a sweep of the Toronto Raptors – a series that played out similar to last season’s domination of the Celtics. But after the first six seconds into Game 1, we assuredly could have said what, realistically, could not have been uttered at any point during their playoff rendezvous last season…
We now have a series.