LeBron, Cavs had one last ace up their sleeve vs. Celtics, and now the problems go deeper than this series

Prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, the results of the 2018 NBA Draft Lottery were revealed. The Cleveland Cavaliers got the No. 8 overall pick. Arguably, that was an even bigger gut shot than the one they endured over the next few hours at the hands of the Celtics, who sucked whatever spirit might be left in this Cavs team straight from their souls with a 107-94 win to take a 2-0 series lead heading back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Saturday. 

At this point, there is no doubt who the better team is in this matchup. It's the Celtics, and it's not even close. Of course, you could argue the Pacers were a better collective team than Cleveland in the first round. Same for the Raptors in the second round, but LeBron has always been able to make up the difference and then some. That was the last ace up the Cavs' sleeve. Just hop on LeBron's back and let him carry them, as he's done so many times, to a place they would never be capable of going without him. 

LeBron answered the bell with a monster, 21-point first quarter, as was about the surest bet in history. You knew he would do that. And you expected it would be enough. It almost always is, at least in the East. But this time it wasn't. LeBron was Superman from the jump, and still, after 12 minutes, Boston was only down four. 

Mike Tyson used to say that everyone has a plan in the ring until they get hit in the face. Well, the Celtics took the world's best player's best punch, a punch that would've knocked almost anybody else out, and yet there they were, right in the middle of the ring, still standing. Hardly even fazed. And from that point forward, they took the fight right back at the man who has owned the Eastern Conference for the last seven years. 

Not to get too dramatic, but it felt like a lot more than one game. 

It felt like an official transition of power. 

Which brings us back to those lottery results, and that No. 8 pick the Cavs had to swallow. Remember, that pick was the one hope Cleveland had left of salvaging anything of real value from the trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston last summer. It belonged to the Nets, and the hope was that the Nets would be worse than they wound up being, and perhaps that pick would end up in the top three, where they could land either a foundational talent to build around in the event that LeBron leaves this summer, or a high-leverage asset to trade for a second star in an effort to keep LeBron. 

The No. 8 pick accomplishes neither. 

Now, to be clear, here's the original package the Cavs got in return for Irving: Isaiah Thomas (no longer with the team), Jae Crowder (no longer with the team), Ante Zizic (you've probably never heard of him) and now the No. 8 pick. For Kyrie Irving. A borderline MVP-caliber player who hit the biggest shot in franchise history. I realize Irving pretty much forced his way out and the Cavs had to take what they could get, but still, this is hard to stomach. 

Because now the Cavs really, seriously, have to start thinking about life without LeBron. Who knows, maybe they come back and win this series. I seriously doubt it, but maybe. Either way, if you watched this team play Tuesday night, there just aren't very many true basketball reasons, if any at all, for James to come back. He's running out of time. This team is nowhere close to where the Celtics are going to be next year when Gordon Hayward and Irving return, let alone the top teams in the West. If he wants to stay at home for personal reasons, that's one thing. But purely through the prism of basketball, there's just nothing left there for him. 

We're talking no cap space to add a free agent, almost no trade value for anyone on their team, and four guys in Rodney Hood, Larry Nance, Jordan Clarkson and George Hill -- all of whom they traded for at the deadline -- who are making basically zero impact in this series. Again, had the Cavs beat the lottery odds and come out with even a top-five pick, there would be something to celebrate. But No. 8? And a 2-0 deficit to Boston to boot? 

Yeah, the Cavs took an old-fashioned shot to the jaw on Tuesday, and unlike the Celtics, you have to question their collective ability to rise from the mat and come right back swinging. For starters, they're just not as good as the Celtics. They're outmatched at four of the five positions, pretty significantly at three of them, and they have almost no depth. LeBron is their only chance, and again, we saw that wasn't enough in Game 2. He wound up with 42 points, 12 assists and 10 boards, and yet the Cavs were still outscored by nine points in the minutes he was on the floor. 

Beyond the basketball, there was a play toward the end of the game that says a lot about where these two teams are at. Al Horford had a free lane to the rim and J.R. Smith shoved him in the back in midair. It was a cheap shot, absolutely uncalled for by Smith, and it took Marcus Smart, who is pretty much a junkyard dog in a tank top, about a half-second to jump right in Smith's face in defense of his teammate. 

How many Cavs came to the defense of Smith?


What we have here is one team in the Celtics that is entirely connected, 1-12 on the floor but really from the front office down, and one team in Cleveland that doesn't even really know what it's fighting for anymore. Is it to actually win this series? Or is it to just do enough to keep LeBron? Or, possibly, have they secretly given up on both? 

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