The Celtics have been the tougher team

In Game 2, Marcus Smart and Boston stood up to LeBron James and Cleveland.

BOSTON — Behold, the perfect Marcus Smart line: 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting, with five rebounds, nine assists, four steals, zero turnovers, and a plus-21 in 31 minutes. What’s not captured on the stat sheet was were all manner of Marcus Smart Plays (™) within those 31 minutes of action.

Like the times he dove into the Cleveland bench to save possessions. Or when he wrestled with some big man trying to establish position and denied an entry pass. Or when he ran the offense in the fourth quarter when things started to bog down in the halfcourt.

“People talk about him all the time,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Sometimes they focus on things that don’t matter, and the other times they focus on that he impacts winning. We are really glad he’s on our team.”

You can talk about cross-switches, tactical counters, and pick-and-roll coverage adjustments all night and all day. This was very simple: The Celtics were the tougher team in Game 2, a game they beat the Cavaliers 107-94 to take a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Smart was the toughest player on the court.

“He makes winning plays,” Cavs coach Ty Lue said. “He makes tough plays. Like we said before, if it’s 50/50 balls, he’s going to get it. If it’s a loose ball, offensive rebound they need to have, he’s going to get it. We’ve got to be able to find someone who can match his toughness.”

It remains to be seen just how many Cavs are up for this. LeBron James — who had 42 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 2 — is a given. Tristan Thompson, who was inserted into the starting lineup for the game, brought some necessary aggressiveness on the boards … though that led him to having the Celtics’ Marcus Morris screaming in his face. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver brought it, for sure, and Larry Nance played with force.

Beyond that, George Hill and Jeff Green were nonfactors. Rodney Hood was somehow worse and J.R. Smith punctuated his 0-for-7 with an unnecessary flagrant foul on Al Horford. Not surprisingly, it was Smart who got up in his face after the play.

“That’s not the first time J.R. has done some dirty stuff, especially playing against us,” Smart said. “He’s known for it, especially playing against us. We know that. So you know, it’s like a bully, you keep letting a bully keep picking on you, he’s going to pick on you until you finally stand up, and that’s what I tried to do. One of my guys was down, and I took offense to it.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game TwoPhoto by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Smart lives for these kinds of games. He’s a 90s player in an 80s body who’s learned to channel his aggression and keep his edge when things are at their most chaotic. You look at him — and his shooting percentages — and say there’s no way a player like that should thrive in today’s NBA, but there he is getting a rebound, hitting the floor, or bodying somebody out of the lane.

“That’s me,” Smart said. “That’s how I was raised. I’m the youngest of four boys. My whole life I had to fight. I had to get down and do things in order to secure my spot in the household. So coming on to the court it’s nothing different.”

This is the mark of this Celtics team. As great as Horford has been, as wonderful as their young trio of up-and-coming stars has played, as expertly coached as they are, they are mentally tough. This trait was detected by the coaching staff as far back as training camp and they’ve shown it time and again this season.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone at this point because they’ve had to prove it every step of the way. That’s how they’ve been able to overcome injuries to star players and maintain the league’s best defense throughout the season.

It’s not just schemes and coaching. It’s not just young talent blossoming at the right moment. It’s a mindset that took root in October and carried over into the spring. Marcus Smart is their avatar.

The Celtics are the first team in the East to stand up to a LeBron James game and come out victorious. This is the first time since 2009 that James scored 40+ points in a playoff game against an Eastern Conference foe and lost. We’ve been waiting for someone to challenge him in this conference and the day has finally arrived.

It’s not like the C’s have unearthed some magic formula to try and contain LeBron. They’ve tried to do what every team tries to do against him: Send multiple defenders his way to keep him from going downhill and turn him into a 3-point shooter.

Because LeBron is who he is, it almost didn’t work. He went wild from behind the arc in the first quarter and dropped 21 points on them. It was reminiscent of so many statement games throughout his career, but the Celtics absorbed the blow and kept at it.

“You know, you’ve got to tip your hat to LeBron,” Smart said. “He’s been doing this for a long time, and if not the greatest, one of them to do it. We knew coming into this game that he was going to come out and give everything he had and he was going to have a game like this. Our job was to just keep going, make it tough on him all night.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game TwoPhoto by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Saturday’s Game 3 now has the feel of a last stand for whatever the Cavs have become, and it could go either way.

“We have a few days, and we’re going to see what we’re made of on Saturday,” James said.

That we’ve come this far in an NBA season and have no real feel for how they’ll respond speaks volumes. This is easily the weirdest supporting cast for LeBron since the last time he was down 2-0 in a playoff series way back in 2008 against the Celtics when half the roster was traded at midseason.

The parallels end there. Those C’s were dominated by future Hall of Famers and those Cavs were loaded with tough-minded vets. The only constant is LeBron and even his brilliance wasn’t enough to save them. We’re in uncharted territory here.

Horford was once again sublime, as he has been every night throughout the playoffs. Give the man his due. If there was an All-NBA team for the postseason he’d be on it. This has been your obligatory note about how great Horford has been this postseason.

The Celtics young three have come into their own. In the first quarter, it was Jaylen Brown who tried to match LeBron shot for shot and keep them afloat. In the second quarter it was Jayson Tatum who got going when the Cavs were building an advantage and the C’s were scrambling for offense.

The missing element in the equation was Terry Rozier, who started cooking in the third quarter when the C’s erased a halftime deficit and built their own lead. Rozier scored 14 of his points in the third and was the catalyst in a 36-22 quarter that turned the game in Boston’s favor.

“Amazing,” Horford said. “You know, Terry, just like a switch goes off, and he just goes out there and plays. Terry is fearless. He’s always been like that.”

Added Stevens, “In a lot of ways you feel comfortable going to every one of those guys with the game on the line.”

This is one of their major advantages in this series. The Cavs can’t focus on stopping any one player, like they could with Victor Oladipo in round one. At any given time there are multiple players who can take over a game and none of them are under pressure to carry them throughout the contest.

“I mean, I think you can actually take a lot from the Boston Celtics,” Love noted. “They had all their starters in double figures, and that comes a lot, I think, with not only [Brad] Stevens putting them in the right position but their level of activity. They move the ball, they continue to cut.”

It’s tempting to call this, but the old cliche about a series not starting until someone loses on their home floor holds true. That’s still LeBron James on the other side and the Celtics haven’t exactly been great on the road.

Their only postseason victory away from the Garden was Game 3 against Philly and that one required all manner of weirdness to pull off. All they really need to do is steal one in Cleveland, but the next two games will tell us a lot more about the Cavs than they they will the Celtics.

The C’s have already done what they needed to do at this stage. They’ve been the tougher team and that’s why they’re headed to Ohio with a 2-0 advantage.

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