It’s hard to dispute Brad Stevens’ credentials as a basketball prodigy, and his fourth-place finish in the NBA’s coach of the year voting was just the latest reminder of how much he’s accomplished on the sidelines at age 38.
That doesn’t mean he has a master plan to shut down LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
His Boston Celtics played well in spurts in their two losses in Cleveland, but Stevens knows his team needs a more complete effort at home Thursday night in Game 3 to overcome the Cavaliers’ ability to call on the series’ two best players in crunch time.
Two national title game appearances at Butler seemed to prepare Stevens well for his role as the leader of the rebuilding Celtics, who despite their storied history currently share a few similar traits to their coach’s Cinderella Bulldog teams.
Boston led in the second quarter of both games at Quicken Loans Arena before Cleveland dropped a pair of devastating runs that bled into the second half, a 53-25 spurt in Game 1 and a 32-9 eruption Tuesday en route to a 99-91 victory.
The difference in Game 2 was that the Celtics didn’t go away, pulling within two midway through the fourth. But James and Irving closed it out in a quarter in which they combined for all 24 Cavaliers points.
“We made those guys earn everything they got,” Stevens said, “and that’s a step in the right direction. We were in a three-possession game and we shot 38 percent.” James had half of his 30 points in the fourth and Irving has averaged 28.0 in the first two, knocking down 8 of 17 3-pointers, but Stevens felt Boston made defensive progress.
“Obviously, they’re great players,” he said. “I thought we challenged Kyrie a little bit better. … But he’s a really explosive ball handler and scorer. And then when LeBron just puts his shoulder down and wants to get where he wants to go, it’s hard to stop him from getting there.
“… But the third quarters killed us both games. We’ve been fighting from behind from that point on in both games.”
One issue James is taking a closer look at heading into Game 3 is his turnovers. He’s given it away 11 times in the first two games, including three in the fourth quarter Tuesday.
“The mistakes you make at home, you cannot make those on the road,” he said.
Boston last hosted a playoff game in 2013 – it lost in six to New York in the first round – but it’s been three years since James last stepped on the TD Garden floor in the postseason.
That performance happened to be one of the best of his storied career. As Miami faced elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, James had 45 points and 15 rebounds in keeping alive his first championship season with the Heat.
That was only the third playoff win in Boston for James’ teams in 12 tries. He was 1-6 there in his first stint with Cleveland.
James and the Cavaliers starters have outscored the Celtics 176-85 so far, while Boston’s bench – paced by 44 points and 17 assists from Isaiah Thomas – has a 106-36 edge on Cleveland’s reserves.