- The Celtics provided a rare moment of drama Sunday night, but their victory will almost certainly be meaningless. The NBA playoffs won't officially begin until Warriors-Cavs III.
On Sunday night, the Cavs were favored by 17 points in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Marv Albert opened the second half by welcoming viewers back to Cleveland, noting the 16-point halftime lead for the Cavs, and calling it the most competitive game of the series. He was dead serious. A few minutes later, the lead jumped to 21.
Then the Celtics happened. They'd played well through the first half, but Cleveland's shooting—especially Kevin Love, who was 7-of-10 from three—had been too much to handle early on. But the Cavs cooled off in the third quarter, and Boston went on a 24-8 run to close the gap to five.
In the fourth quarter, Boston chipped away and eventually took the lead. It ended with a marvelous go-ahead three from Avery Bradley that rattled around the rim until there was only a tenth of a second left and the game was over.
For the Cavs, LeBron (4-of-13 shooting and six turnovers) was flat, and it cost them once the Celtics started hitting shots. Tristan Thompsan was great, but he could only do so much. James finished with 11 points, the fourth-lowest total in 210 career playoff games.
For the Celtics, even with LeBron struggling, I'm still not sure how any of it worked. Isaiah Thomas was hurt, so... Jonas Jerebko gave them stellar minutes? Marcus Smart hit seven threes? Brad Stevens drew up two fantastic out-of-bounds plays in the final minute? After getting thrown around for three quarters, Al Horford came up big down the stretch? I don't know.
It all had the feel of a No. 14 seed downing a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. And like most opening weekend upsets: it was exciting, but almost certainly meaningless.
The playoffs have lacked drama for weeks now. It's not necessarily anyone's fault, and it may not be a crisis for the league. But there's no point in denying it. Cleveland and Golden State are operating on a different frequency than the rest of these teams. Even Celtics-Wizards was just a bar fight to see who gets the bronze medal.
If the Cavs left the door open for skeptics two months ago, that opening has closed shut over the past few weeks. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both flourishing, and LeBron has looked incredible. The defense is holding up, and nobody can touch the offense. They were up 50 on the Celtics on Friday night.
Every Cavs game until Sunday has felt like this Kevin Love highlight, and every team in the East has looked like the Celtics at Sunday's shootaround. They're playing so well that they've made most of the playoffs look like exhibition games.
The Celtics were great Sunday, but they didn't expose some weakness that changes any of this. We've seen too much. Isaiah Thomas is out for the playoffs, anyway. Boston would have to win at least two more games before anyone even thinks about hearkening back to the Regrettable Cavs Skepticism of March 2017.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are doing whatever they want against a Kawhi-less Spurs team. They had their March Madness moment in Game 1, but in that version the favorite escaped at the end. Everything since has felt like a Sweet 16 game where the well-coached underdog tries to keep it interesting, but it's never actually that interesting.
There's room to complain about the dynamics in both conferences. There's room to talk about solutions. But as Boston was fighting back Sunday, I realized I'm not really worried about problems or solutions right now.
Watching the Celtics inject some life into the playoffs during the second half was a nice reminder of what these games are supposed to be. Both teams traded huge shots down the stretch. LeBron was in a funk, and that was captivating, too. J.R. Smith came up with a huge three to tie it, and then got lost on Bradley's shot to win it. It was madness.
As much as I enjoyed it, I spent almost the entire fourth quarter thinking about something else. While Sunday night proved to be entertaining, the postseason will be so much more interesting when the 12-0 Warriors are taking on the 12-1 Cavs, and the playoffs start for real.