Avery Bradley's last-second 3-pointer gave the Boston Celtics a 111-108 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday despite star guard Isaiah Thomas being sidelined with a hip injury. While Cleveland's offense looked unstoppable in the first half, the second half played out much differently than the rest of this series. Boston's effort was a million times better than it was in its 44-point loss Friday, and when the Cavs went cold, the Celtics took full advantage. Cleveland now leads the series 2-1, and Game 4 is on Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Celtics have a signature win
There are so many positives about this Boston victory that it's hard to know where to start. Without Thomas, the Celtics put extra effort into moving the ball, and the result was balanced scoring. After they fell down by 21 points in the third quarter, they went on a huge run and cut the deficit to two points early in the fourth. Even if they had not prevailed at the end, it would have been much more representative of what this Boston team is about than the two losses at home.
Marcus Smart started in place of Thomas and played perhaps the game of his life. He scored 27 points on 8-for-14 shooting, with seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block. He clearly knew he had to be more aggressive than usual, but that doesn't account for the fact that he went 7 for 10 from 3-point range. Smart is a career 29.1 percent 3-point shooter, and he was 0 for 4 from deep in the first two games. The performance perfectly illustrated why the Celtics value him so highly -- he is versatile, athletic, strong and full of energy. If he ever becomes a consistent outside shooter, he can be a star.
"We can talk about his shooting all year long, but you know when it's in a big moment, that kid is going to rise to the occasion," Boston coach Brad Stevens said. "He just always has. That's one of the reasons why -- he goes through a funk, and sometimes in March, you shoot yourself out of it, and we believe in you, and [we say] let it fly. Because in this moment, when we needed him the most, he made huge shots. He was terrific tonight."
"A lot of people counted us out with Isaiah not being here, and he is a big part of this team and helps us out," Bradley said, "but Smart took this opportunity to come out and be aggressive on both ends of the floor and make plays for our team. And he was able to do that tonight. And we need Smart to play that way all the time. He's a very good player. We know he's capable of having big games for us on the offensive end, and I think it's definitely going to give him confidence for the rest of the series."
It wasn't just Smart, though. Collectively, the Celtics played by far the best they have defensively against the Cavaliers. This was true even when Cleveland was making just about everything early on. Other heroes: Jonas Jerebko, who scored 10 points and was plus-22 in 13 minutes; Kelly Olynyk, who scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half; Jae Crowder, who battled for 40 minutes and was the primary defender on LeBron James. Which brings us to â¦
LeBron was quiet
The biggest storyline in the NBA is that James is than ever. He has made the playoffs his playground, and putting up incredible stat lines. This time, though, James didn't do his normal, dominant thing.
To be clear, James was not bad. He never is. He just wasn't up to his standards, and he wasn't aggressive looking for his own offense, finishing with 11 points on 4-for-13 shooting, plus six rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. Much of this is because the Celtics switched less and did a better job of making rotations. Some of that is because Thomas was out, making for bigger and longer defensive lineups. When James really puts his mind to it, though, he can make all of that moot. Do not expect something similar in Game 4.
"Me personally, I didn't have it," James said. "My teammates did a great job of keeping us in the game, building that lead, but me personally, I didn't have it. So, that's all I got to say about my performance."
Love is at the top of his game
Another reason James wasn't calling his own number, at least in the first half, was that his teammates were on fire. Kevin Love scored 28 points on 8-for-16 shooting, including 7 for 13 from 3-point range, with 10 rebounds, three assists and three blocks. Few people will talk about this because of the result, but Love has been playing some of the best basketball of his career lately. His positional defense has been excellent, and Boston hasn't been able to stop him from scoring or keep him off the glass.
There have been times during Love's tenure in Cleveland that he hasn't known his place in the offense and has been used mostly as a decoy. Now, he's taking -- and making! -- shots like this:
Kyrie Irving also deserves credit -- he had a team-high 29 points and shot 10 for 15, including 4 for 6 from deep, with seven assists. Tristan Thompson had 18 points and 13 rebounds, and he went 12 for 15 from the free throw line. All of this is to say that, despite James' off night, Boston came back to beat a Cavs team that was actually playing well. Impressive.
The winner wasn't Bradley's only highlight
Look at what happened in the second quarter:
The cool part about that is he needed to wrap the ball around his back there. Bradley is not known as one of the league's best ball-handlers, but the mere fact that he had the confidence to try that in a playoff game is a testament to how much he has improved in that area.