Cavs finally unlocked, match LeBron’s intensity to claim Game 3

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CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers‘ struggles with the Boston Celtics early in the Eastern Conference finals involved nuance, circumstance and shades of gray.

Also, they couldn’t make a 3-pointer, open or contested.

The Cavs’ various ills have a way of fading into the background when their 3s drop, and those deep makes tend to unlock energy to execute in other phases of the game. For example, following the trades in February, the Cavs averaged 13 3-pointers on 42 percent shooting in wins and just nine 3s on 29 percent shooting in losses.

When the Cavs went 0-of-14 on 3s in the first half of Game 1 and then 3-of-17 in the second half of Game 2, it wasn’t a surprise that they had everything from defensive issues to dribbling issues. They were just 2-of-15 on uncontested 3-pointers in those games, which explains a great deal.

So, we could spend time at this juncture examining Cleveland’s defensive execution (it was vastly improved) in Game 3 Saturday night. We could talk about how Boston seems to lose its swagger on the road in the postseason (1-5). And so on.

Instead, all you need to know is that the Cavs looked like a different team from 3-point range and it was a totally different outcome. They went 9-of-17 on treys in the first half alone and finished 17-of-34. Thusly, they won easily 116-86 to pull within 2-1 in the series.

“We did a good job moving the basketball and making the extra pass, and we shot it well tonight,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “When we’re playing like that, guys are going to get open shots.”

OK, it was a little more complicated than that. But Cleveland, urged by Lue to elevate its general pace, predictably played with more urgency with the season effectively on the line.

In the early going Saturday night, the Cavaliers were spurred by George Hill, who had been terrible in the games in Boston, including having zero rebounds or assists in Game 1 and being part of the 41-3 thrashing in scoring that the Celtics’ starting backcourt put on the Cavs in Game 2.

Hill scored the game’s first basket on a drive and then picked up Terry Rozier full court on defense, defining the difference in the Cavs’ mentality in a matter of moments after the tip. Then Hill hit three 3-pointers and ended up with 13 points in the first half, the most he has scored in a half in a Cavs uniform.

LeBron James was naturally a part of it; he operated with much more ease as the Celtics’ defense had to extend to cover the 3-point shooting. James had 19 points and six assists in the first half as the Cavs built a huge lead. He finished with 27 points and 12 assists, making 8 of 12 shots.

When James runs up those assist totals and doesn’t need as many shots, the Cavs are clicking — and probably making 3-pointers. But he also was nicely engaged defensively, setting the tone early on by blocking a couple of shots and showing needed activity. The Celtics were 2-of-10 shooting with four turnovers when James was the primary defender.

“As a group, even when things broke down, we just covered for one another,” James said. “We made them make extra passes. We made them make extra dribbles. We were flying around, and I just happened to be one of the guys on the floor that wanted to fly around, as well.”

The Celtics shot just 38 percent in three quarters before garbage time commenced, as they lacked the movement and vigor of the games in Boston. None of their key contributors was active, especially the backcourt of Rozier and Jaylen Brown, who were a combined 8-of-20 shooting.

All five Cavs starters scored in double figures, and Kyle Korver came off the bench and made all four of his 3-pointers, which summed up the evening in a number of ways.

“I think that they were great,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We were clearly not the harder-playing, more connected team tonight. Cleveland was, and they deserve all the credit for that. I thought they played a great game.”

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