BOSTON—OK, I checked. Contrary to what you might have believed, LeBron James did not sign with the Los Angeles Lakers at halftime of Sunday’s game with the Boston Celtics. Lord knows, nobody would have blamed him. The two teams went into the locker rooms with Boston leading by a preposterous, 61–35.
The Celtics, who had been at swords-point through five games with the Philadelphia 76ers in their previous series, came out loose and full of fire. The Cavaliers, who’d dispatched Toronto so quickly that it cost Dwane Casey his job as the Raptors coach, had had a week off. They came out as the petrified forest. And, to be honest, James wasn’t exactly brimming with life and good cheer, either. He ended up with 15 points and seven turnovers and, by the beginning of the fourth quarter, when Cleveland had clearly gone off in its head toward Appomattox Court House, LeBron James was simply walking downcourt, trying his best to turn the eventual 108–83 final into an anomalous shadow already in the past.
(Also, at one point late in the game, James actually was called for traveling, which may not have happened to him since grade school.)
“I thought they had a great game plan for Game 1,” James said. “I think they did a great job communicating, knowing where I was and knowing where our teammates were. We have an opportunity to look at a lot of film tomorrow and see ways they were making us uncomfortable, making myself off balance and not have a rhythm all game.
“Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you’ve followed my history. So I’ve got a good sense of the way they played me today and how I’ll play going into Game 2.”
This was a whole different thing than the Toronto series, when the Raptors were so terrified of James that the whole team might have jumped into the stands if he merely glared at them. The Celtics ran almost the whole team at him at one point or another; Marcus Morris carried most of the load, but everyone got a turn, and everyone else got a turn at helping out the player whose turn it was. They hassled him into a 5-for-16 shooting night. Boston didn’t so much guard James as stalk him, and without the timorous doomstruck look that had hung over Toronto every time James got the ball.
“We got a lot of guys who, really, just don’t care,” Boston’s Marcus Smart explained. “Our whole lives, we’ve been fighting bigger opponents than us. We have talent here, too. And we’re just fearless.”
There’s really no point in discussing this Celtics team without discussing Smart who, whatever the box score says, manages to do something on every possession that draws the eye—or the ire, or, occasionally both. He is a pestiferous presence on defense. He is in the middle of passing lanes almost all the time. He’ll find his way into the most ridiculous situations on offense and, sometimes, look ridiculous trying to get out of them. But, more often than not, Smart will throw a pass, or get a rebound basket or pick someone’s pocket on defense, and almost always at the most critical time. As things are measured by the kids these days, Celtics Twitter is never more fire than when Smart is in the game.
One veteran Celtics savant pointed out to me what he called the most Marcus Smart thing that Marcus Smart ever did. It was at the end of the fifth and deciding game against Philadelphia. Somehow, with the clock winding down, Smart gets the ball. He gets fouled. He misses the first free throw. On the second, he tries to miss it deliberately to kill the clock in the rebounding action, and it goes in. Then he makes the steal all the way at the other end of the court that saves the game. For me, it was a shot in that same series that didn’t count; Smart caught the ball deep in the left corner as the quarter was running out and just simply threw into the basket, without even turning completely around. You cannot take your eyes off this man, I tell you.
“One thing about me, I could care less what people think,” Smart said. “That’s the way I was taught, you know? Always be active. People always want a guy who can change a game in multiple ways instead of scoring. If you can do just one thing, and you’re not doing it, it’s kind of hard to play. If you can do multiple things, it’s hard to keep you off the floor.”
As the Celtics piled up a huge lead, there was a lot of talk about the Memorial Day Massacre in 1985, when the Celtics hammered the Lakers, 148–114. There was mention of this having been the Mother’s Day Massacre—which was something of an offense against history because there was another Mother’s Day Massacre here in Boston; in 1982, the Celtics beat the 76ers by 40 on Mother’s Day. Ominous portents because Boston went on to lose both those series. But there was something else happening on Sunday that made any easy reference to a Mother’s Day Massacre inexcusably glib.
“She’ll be going in, chemotherapy, three times a week, every month,” Smart said.
In April, while he was recovering from a thumb injury, Smart dropped by his mother’s place in Texas. Camellia Smart already had come through quadruple-bypass surgery, but this was different. She had been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a rare and exotic form of cancer that inhibits the bone marrow from producing healthy blood cells. MDS often is a precursor to leukemia. In any event, the prognosis is not a bowl of buttercups. Smart has been here before; he lost a brother to cancer 14 years ago. His mother insisted he come back to Boston, get his thumb back together, and play.
“It’s tough. I’m not going to lie,” Smart said. “That’s why I’m a professional. We have a job to do. That’s one thing about my mom. She’s real big on, ‘I’m going to be OK, you have a job to do. Do what you gotta do.’ That gives me a little comfort to go out there and not be guilty that I’m here and not there with her. It is tough, but I have a great support system around me here.”
Sometime during the fourth quarter, when the Celtics already had salted the game away, and James was taking his leisurely strolls down the parquet in the general direction of the Mystic River, back in the Boston locker room, Smart’s phone went off. He picked up the message as soon as he got back there.
“She definitely was watching,” he said. “The whole family was watching. They came over to the house. It was definitely good to see everybody and hear everybody. And, when she called me, to hear the smile and the joy that she had in her voice, it lit up my day.
“I called her back, and she’s screaming and yelling because that’s who she is. She told me, ‘You gotta shoot the ball, shoot it!.’ My biggest critic and my biggest fan, that’s why I love her.”
It was, then, not a Mother’s Day to talk about a massacre, even as metaphor, even figuratively. The Celtics crushed the Cavaliers and Smart, while not a big presence in the box score, was in the middle of everything because that’s where Smart always is. He picked James clean on one occasion, and then James returned the favor. That occasioned some pointed, but not entirely unfriendly, yapping from both players.
“Going into the half, he made the strip on me when I was trying to shoot it,” Smart said. “I thought it was a foul. He was just kind of laughing at it. Mutual respect and we just kept going.
“Last couple playoffs, they blew us out of the water. Now, we have a different team just like they do, and a lot of younger guys. For them to see that and have that feeling of winning like we did tonight, that’s just huge.”
The odds are that the rest of the series will not go the way its first game did. LeBron James is studying film and trying to figure out how the Celtics made him disappear. His teammates likely will find that they’ve likely turned the corner in their battle against Dutch Elm Disease. But there is no question that Smart will be in the middle of things, doing something, lighting up Celtics Twitter and people will know the truth that everyone at Camellia Smart’s house in Texas knew on Sunday. You cannot take your eyes off this man.