CLEVELAND - J.R. Smith swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key and backpedalled to halfcourt with three fingers out on each side.
It was midway through the first quarter at that point, but the bucket was part of a 13-0 run that let an anxious crowd relax. All the fans had to do was look down at their free t-shirts to know how the Cavaliers would get back in the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday. "It takes CLE." Well, that and the three ball.
The Cavaliers used the comforts of Quicken Loans Arena to ignite a 116-86 blowout victory over the Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals to cut the Celtics' advantage to 2-1. Cleveland hit 17 of 34 from 3-point range and six players scored in double figures. It looked more like the team expected to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season.
The Cavs now have a chance to even the series Monday in Game 4 and put the pressure back on the Celts.
"I thought we did a good job of moving the basketball and making the extra pass," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "We shot it well tonight. When we're playing like that, guys will get good shots. We just have to make them."
When they do, it's over. Cleveland is 24-3 home in the Eastern Conference playoffs since LeBron James returned for the 2014-15 season. That includes a 7-1 record in the conference finals, with the lone loss in that round coming in Game 3 against the Celtics last year. Think about it this these terms. If the adage that the "series doesn't start until the home team loses" is real, then we haven't started yet. If both teams hold serve at home and we end up with a Game 7, then who are you betting on? Boston or LeBron?
After mapping all that out, then is there pressure on the Celtics to win a game on the road?
"In my 11 years as a head coach I've probably talked about home and road five times with my team," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "It's about how you play between the lines because I think when you start talking about that you find excuses in both places."
You'll also find pre-written narratives heading into Game 4. If Cleveland loses, then it's a tough-to-beat 3-1 deficit. If Boston wins, then we're back where we started and the Cavs have all the momentum behind James.
James did his part with 27 points and 12 assists on a night when he hit 8 of 12 shots from the floor. He stretched the lead to 52-32 with a deep three-pointer with 4:17 left in the first half that prompted Stevens to call a timeout. Former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier made an appearance on the Jumbotron to lead the "O-H-I-O" chant that accompanies "Hang on Sloopy" for a party that started earlier than expected.
The Cavs were far from finished. James followed up with a reverse windmill dunk off a back-door pass from Kevin Love, part of a half where Cleveland plays its best basketball of the series. That often-talked about help showed up on time. George Hill scored 11 first-quarter points. Eight different Cavs scored as part of a half when the team hit 9 of 17 from three-point range. Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Jeff Green hit 6 of 7 shots off the bench. All that built a 61-41 halftime cushion.
Boston, meanwhile, shot 39.2 percent from the floor and 27.3 from 3-point range. Jaylen Brown faced constant foul trouble. He had two in the first five minutes and three more in the third quarter. All five Cavs' starters scored in double figures in a performance that mirrored in several ways the one Boston put together in a 107-94 victory in Game 2.
Jordan Clarkson even got in the act late with nine points, all on 3-pointers, in the fourth quarter. The Cavs had a 104-74 lead with 6:49 remaining, and James spent the rest of the time resting for Game 4. Cleveland was favoured to win Game 3, but perhaps not like this.
For the Cavs, "It takes CLE," indeed. That sparked that was easy to see coming when that 13-0 run started.
"I thought J.R. and (George) Hill did a nice job of setting the tone early offensively and played more aggressively and with more force," Lue said. "To have six guys hit double figures, that's big."
For the Celtics, it will take something more in Game 4.
"We didn't play as connected, we didn't play with as much ball pressure as we had the first two games," Stevens said. "I don't want to take away from their performance by talking about us."
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