Wednesday April 22nd, 2015

Elbow grease can only carry you so far in the playoffs. Gritty defense and grind-it-out offense can guide you to a win on any given night during the regular season—and a playoff berth in the East!—but it can’t get you out of a seven-game series with LeBron James.

There’s a certain inevitability when facing James in the playoffs. He’s 9-0 in the first round and has dropped only three first-round games in the last six years. He’s made four straight Finals and been the league’s best player for the better part of a decade. He’s a staple of June, and you have to find a way to beat him four times in seven games.

• MORE NBA: Schedule | Grades | Awards | Playoff coverage | Finals picks

The overachieving Celtics are the poor saps standing in James’s way in the first round. Not only do they face the daunting challenge of defeating him, but they win the lottery of getting to face Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in their long-awaited playoff debuts.

NBA
LeBron, Cavs benefit from revamped roster in victorious return to playoffs

​No matter the odds, Brad Stevens’s bunch doesn’t bat an eyelash, much less act like the inferior team. Tuesday’s effort was no different, with the Celtics jumping out to a lead and controlling most of the first half with their frenetic defense and satisfactory offense. In the second half, Boston continued to trade blows when most opponents would have folded, but the onslaught eventually became too much.

That’s when the reality of LeBron sank in. James took over in the fourth quarter, as he’s accustomed to doing, scoring 15 of his game-high 30 points and powering the Cavaliers to a 99-91 victory and a 2-0 series lead.

For all of the gutsy efforts from Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley, there’s no defender on Earth built to stay in front of LeBron James. For all of Stevens’s schemes and best efforts, which were recognized Tuesday with a fourth-place finish in the coach of the year voting, the Celtics still don’t have anyone capable of challenging James at the rim. And for all of the resolve displayed in Game 2, the Celtics are still woefully mismatched from a talent standpoint, a glaring weakness that is exposed in the playoffs.

No matter how well Boston plays in this series, there’s a few sobering truths it simply can’t overcome. The Cavaliers have two No. 1 overall picks in their starting lineup ... the Celtics have two 2015 first-round picks. Cleveland resurrected its season by making trades for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, while Boston reorganized its season by trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. One roster is built for the 2015 NBA playoffs, and the other doesn’t have a completion date.

Stevens’s Celtics played the role of underdog almost to perfection in Game 2, coming just short of the win.  Boston’s slew of perimeter pesters zipped across the floor, creating havoc and forcing 18 turnovers. Cleveland shot just 7-of-29 (24.1%) from three-point range, unable to get off clean shots due to consistent pressure. And Isaiah Thomas kept the game close with one gut-check play after another down the stretch, finishing with 22 points and a pristine 10-of-10 showing from the line.

But the inevitability of LeBron eventually tolled. Even with Love playing nothing more than a complementary role (he scored 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting and didn’t score in the final 19 minutes) the combination of James and Irving was too much for Boston’s defense. The two stars combined to score all of Cleveland’s 24 fourth-quarter points and have picked Boston apart with surgical ease for the majority of two games. The Celtics own a defensive rating of 112.8 through two playoff games, a startling +11.1 increase from their regular-season average (101.7).

[daily_cut.NBA]​James capped Tuesday’s performance by making history—as he’s prone to do—by passing Jerry West for seventh on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. It’s only fitting that the Cavaliers star would pass The Logo on a night when he reminded the rest of the league why he’s the gold standard.

James’s regular-season efforts won’t be enough to win a fifth MVP, but there’s little debate as to who is the league’s best player. James has the luxury of displaying that power only when necessary. It’s a luxury James Harden and Stephen Curry can’t claim, but one the Cavaliers star relishes as a 30-year-old eyeing titles not awards.

• MORE NBA: Power Rankings | Stevens's impact | Highlights | Series preview

When the Cavaliers call his name, or maybe when he calls his own, James is still the NBA’s best closer. He averaged 7.1 fourth-quarter points during the regular season, tied for most in the league, and he put the Celtics away with a familiar ease Tuesday.

The series returns to Boston for the next two games, but a 6’8", 250-pound cloud hangs over the Celtics’ playoff future. No matter how hard you run, hustle or defend, you can’t escape LeBron James.

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