BOSTON -- An hour before tipoff Friday night, Danny Ferry and Dan Gilbert stood in the concourse leading to the visiting locker room. They chatted, they paced, they exchanged nervous pleasantries with passersby.
Any basketball executive or activist owner who's ever faced the predicament that was staring at Ferry and Gilbert in this moment could've guessed how they felt. But no one could imagine the tension, the desperation that must have been churning for them with the Cavaliers facing the prospect of going down 2-1 on the road to the Celtics -- two rounds short of their ultimate goal, with so much at stake for the franchise.
"We had three days to sit and feel the pressure of Game 2 -- if you wanted to make it pressure," LeBron James said after scoring 38 points -- 21 in a clinic of a first quarter -- to lead the Cavs to a 124-95 annihilation of the Celtics. "If not, you just bounce back."
It is a dual-edged sword, employing LeBron as the ambassador and undisputed King of your city. The pressure comes from the unthinkable possibility of a premature playoff exit paving the way for James to leave, too. The confidence -- OK, the relief -- comes on a night when LeBron steps onto the floor and decides that he will meet catastrophe head-on and crush it.
That, among other things, is what the Cavs did in Game 3. They crushed the Celtics' will to compete, made them look old again and made themselves look like champions again. For one night, they did that. They held disaster at bay, restored the home-court advantage they had squandered in Cleveland, and lifted the weight of the world off their shoulders -- at least for another 40 hours or so.
"It's a long series," said Shaquille O'Neal, veteran of many. "It's only one game."
This dynamic is always day to day for the Cavs, the crucible boiling with implications both immediate and long-term. James sensed it right away after Game 2, which explained his calm demeanor in contrast to coach Mike Brown's seething anger.
"If you remember me, I was very calm," James said. "There was no reason for me as leader to be very, very angry or feel like it was pressure time for us. ... I knew how important the next game was, and I know how important the whole series is."
Knowing that, LeBron came out determined to knock the Celtics off their pedestal before they knew what had hit them. He felt the spotlight, the pressure, and absorbed all of it. He scored 12 of Cleveland's first 18 points, with 14 of those coming in quick succession after he was rattled by a body check from Kendrick Perkins on a drive to the basket with 6:59 left in the first. It was 12-8 Cleveland after James made his free throws, and LeBron seemed to forget about his aching right elbow after that. The Celtics didn't score for another two minutes, and by then it was 20-10. The rout was on.
"I knew it was going to be a tough foul," James said. "But it didn't stop me from being aggressive for the rest of the game."
No, it didn't. It only made him more so.
|LeBron James' dominating outing puts the pressure back on Boston. (Getty Images)|
"He's our leader," Antawn Jamison said. "He was really focused coming in [Friday] at shootaround. He goes, we go."
After being fortunate to come out of Cleveland with a 1-1 series, the Cavs caught the Celtics flat-footed and overconfident. No surprise there. The Celtics have been an anomaly all season. Asked before the game when he felt his team was ready for the playoffs to start, coach Doc Rivers said, "In October. I really believe that. We just had to wait until the end of the season. We obviously wanted to be in a better position with home court, but that just wasn't attainable for us."
Even when it was attained, it was immediately squandered. What LeBron is to the Cavs, Rajon Rondo was to the Celtics in the first two games. Paul Pierce, on the other hand, has become Brian Scalabrine. If the Celtics were feeling good about stealing a game in Cleveland without getting an impactful performance from Pierce, they weren't feeling that way Friday night at 9:30 p.m. ET.
"This will be a difficult series for us to win without Paul," Rivers said.
Same goes for the Cavs and LeBron, who did exactly what you would expect him to do in Game 3. He showed up and made the opposition wish they hadn't. His energy being to Cleveland what the sun is to the solar system, the Cavs responded by digging in defensively like they've rarely done for 48 minutes in this postseason. Pierce was 4 for 15 with 11 points and is averaging 12.7 points and shooting 31 percent in the series. Facing half-court pressure from the 6-6 Anthony Parker, Rondo managed a mortal 18 points and eight assists -- but was 6 for 13 at halftime, when the Cavs already led 65-43.
"We played an awful game in Game 2," James said. "And we knew we couldn't repeat that performance or we'd get beat up again."
They didn't, and LeBron made sure of it. Disaster averted.
In the same concourse where Ferry and Gilbert had stood hours earlier, not sure whether they were here to exhale or weep, the postgame festivities had begun late Friday night. Friends and families of the players milled about, the vibe feeling like a cocktail party. James' good friend Jay-Z was nowhere to be found -- unfortunately, neither was Beyonce -- but there was the ubiquitous William "Wes" Wesley leaning against a wall and James' agent, Leon Rose, making small talk here and there.
An hour later, James was outside the media room posing for pictures, with Wesley by his side. He'll do this again Sunday afternoon, surrounded by infinitely less dread.