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Cavaliers 99, Celtics 91

LeBron James takes charge, leads Cavaliers past Celtics in Game 2

The Cavaliers’ J.R.Smith slams into the Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas as he was shooting a first-half 3-pointer.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

CLEVELAND — When LeBron James was a teenager, he would step onto a basketball court and often do whatever his athleticism allowed. That usually was enough, but there were still areas of his game that had yet to be mined.

Now, in addition to being a freak of nature, he is thoughtful and analytical. Every play provides some extra intelligence, and the new intelligence leads to new opportunity.

“My mind is always just kind of figuring out the positions on the floor where I can be successful,” James said. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen everything. I’m able to calibrate throughout the game.”


In Game 2 of the Cavaliers’ opening-round playoff series against the Celtics Tuesday night, James studied the flow in the first half and seized control in the second. He finished with 30 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists, leading the Cavaliers to a 99-91 victory and a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven series.

“He’s obviously a great competitor,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s also the most physically talented, and he’s certainly one of the best mental players in the game.”

Said Cavaliers coach David Blatt: “I just thought LeBron recognized the moment . . . I thought he imposed his will on the game.”

Throughout this series, as well as during their regular-season meetings, the Celtics have searched for the balance between focusing on James and Kyrie Irving, while also stopping the other Cavaliers from having an ancillary impact. When Tuesday’s defining moments arrived, though, the Celtics were unable to do either.

James and Irving combined to score their team’s final 28 points, and the Cavaliers held a 12-4 rebounding edge in the final quarter. Cleveland ultimately turned an 84-82 lead with 6:58 left into another comfortable win, another step toward its overarching goal.

Isaiah Thomas guided the Celtics for the second consecutive game, tallying 22 points and 7 assists in 30 minutes. But it wasn’t enough.


In Game 1, the Celtics shot the ball well enough and did not allow James to dominate, but they were lacking in other areas — rebounding, transition defense, turnovers. For much of Game 2, they cleaned up those shortfalls. But they also shot 38.8 percent from the field, and that probably will not suffice, not here.

Of course, if the Celtics improve their shooting in Game 3 at TD Garden, some other misstep could emerge. After losses, there is a tendency to search for what went wrong and what could have been done better. And you can always find something.

But through two games, the hard truth is this: The Cleveland Cavaliers are about 10 points better than the Celtics, and on most nights the final result would probably indicate that. The Celtics will need an exceptional performance, and in this series they have yet to be exceptional.

“We’ve just got to keep playing,” forward Jared Sullinger said. “Get [Games] 3 and 4 back at our crib, and hopefully we can make something happen.”

Much like in Game 1, the Celtics had a quick start Tuesday. In the second quarter, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk combined to make all three of their 3-point attempts, and with 4:37 left a layup by Bradley gave Boston a 45-36 lead, its largest. For the first time in this series, the carefree crowd at Quicken Loans Arena was murmuring and restless.


But the Cavaliers responded with 8 straight points and took a 51-50 lead to halftime. The Celtics committed their fourth foul with 9:29 left in the third period, causing them to become tentative defensively and allowing Cleveland to stretch its lead at the free throw line — and in midair.

A 15-2 burst was highlighted by James tossing a reverse alley-oop to Kevin Love, and by Irving floating an alley-oop to James, whose dunk made it 68-54 with 6:52 left.

“You can feel like you’re going pretty well,” Stevens said, “and then you can feel like you’re getting steamrolled pretty quickly.”

The Celtics did not wilt, however. A 9-0 flurry that was capped by a Thomas 3-point play pulled Boston within 79-77 with 9:17 remaining. The Celtics were still within 2 points with 6:45 left.

But Boston made just one of its final eight field goal attempts until Sullinger converted a meaningless layup in the final seconds. At the other end, James and Irving took care of the rest, and if they misfired, their teammates were there to gobble up rebounds.

The Celtics have done an admirable job of bouncing back from setbacks this season. But most often, a loss to a team such as the Cavaliers was not followed by another game against a team like the Cavaliers.

“This team will compete,” Stevens said. “I feel pretty comfortable saying we’ll compete.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.