CLEVELAND — Before taking the floor, LeBron James stood in the hallway with his teammates outside Cleveland’s locker room and pounded his chest with both hands.
The Celtics got thumped next.
James had 27 points and 12 assists, Kevin Love added 14 rebounds and the Cavaliers looked like a different team on their home court, tightening the Eastern Conference finals with a 116-86 victory in Game 3 over Boston on Saturday night.
Outplayed during two losses in Boston, the Cavs used a three-day break in the series to regroup and re-grip this series. With James leading the way, they built a 19-point lead in the first quarter, pushed it to 30 in the second half and overpowered the Celtics, who fell to 1-5 on the road in the postseason.
Any discussion of Cleveland’s demise is premature. Kyle Korver made four of the Cavs’ 17 3-pointers and Cleveland had six players in double figures.
“I also have to inspire my teammates to be better,” James said. “They answered the call tonight and they need to answer the phone another time on Monday.”
Game 4 is Monday night before the series returns to Boston.
Jaylen Brown was in foul trouble all night and scored just 10 for the Celtics after averaging 23 in the first two games. Jayson Tatum scored 18 and Terry Rozier 13 for Boston, which couldn’t match Cleveland in any aspect.
“They took it to us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Point blank: They just outplayed us.”
Only 19 of a possible 300 teams have ever overcome a 2-0 deficit in the playoffs. James and the Cavs, who previously did it in 2007 and again in 2016 while winning the NBA title, took the first step toward a third comeback.
To return to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year, the Cavs have to win four of five and re-write Boston’s illustrious history. The Celtics are 37-0 when they win the first two games in a series.
“That doesn’t bother me,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said before Game 3. “The games have to be played. They won two games on their home court, which we know they’ve been playing well the whole playoffs, but we’re not discouraged.
“So, 0-2 doesn’t really mean anything.”
Apparently not. The Cavs came in wanting to play faster and be more physical with the younger Celtics, who were the aggressors in Games 1 and 2.
Lue also needed more from point guard George Hill after two poor performances (8 points, 1 assist) in Boston. Hill responded with a driving layup to start the game and drained three 3-pointers in the first quarter as Cleveland wasted no time taking control.
Hill finished with 13, J.R. Smith 11 — they were outscored 41-3 in Game 2 — and Cleveland’s supporting cast played so well that James was only on the floor for 37 minutes.
Stevens was confident his team would play better on the road than earlier in these playoffs, but the Celtics were shaky early, committing four turnovers and shooting 2 of 10 while the Cavs opened a 27-11 lead.
James arrived at 5:45 p.m., greeted by the usual phalanx of cameras waiting to record his walk from the security entrance at Quicken Loans Arena to Cleveland’s locker room.
Earlier in the day, James said the fact he has twice rallied from 2-0 deficits in the postseason offered no relief.
“There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer,” he said.
Summer might not be as close as it once seemed.
Celtics: Seeking to become the sixth No. 2 seed to win the East in eight years. Boston was a No. 4 seed when it advanced to the finals in 2010. … Fell to 3-8 in playoff games in Cleveland, the most by a Cavs opponent at the Q. … Stevens was relieved to learn that Boston legend Bill Russell was recovering after a hospital stay brought on by dehydration. Russell won 11 NBA titles with the Celtics. “He’s the ultimate basketball winner,” Stevens said. “The way he impacted winning, the unselfishness of a teammate, what he stood for off the floor — everything about him.”
Cavaliers: James needs six field goals to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2,356) for the most in postseason history. … Cleveland has won six straight playoff games at home. … Improved to 14-6 vs. Boston in the playoffs.
Before the game, Stevens downplayed his team’s road issues, saying there was a “small sample size.”
It got a little bigger, and a little more troubling. Still, he won’t focus on Boston’s road woes.
“In my 11 years as a head coach, I probably haven’t talked about road and home five times with our team,” he said. “It’s about how you play between the lines. Because I think if you start talking about that, then you find excuses in both places. We can’t play like we played tonight no matter where we played. If we would have played in Boston like that, we would have gotten beat.”
Stevens has deep Cleveland roots, but he’s slowly converting family members to pull for Boston’s teams.
His parents are from Northeast Ohio and his wife, Tracy, is from suburban Rocky River. Before the game, Stevens was asked what happens to all the Cavs, Browns and Cavaliers gear he gets as gifts.
“My 7 1/2-year-old nephew was offered 10 extra-credit points (in school) if he wore anything regarding Cleveland yesterday, and he went all green,” Stevens said. “And three years ago, I think he was all Cleveland stuff. So we’re making strides with him. But yeah, we have a large contingent. Maybe they’ll get some of those (Game 3 giveaway) yellow shirts and pass them around to some people who haven’t completely converted to rooting for the Celtics yet.”
Game 4 is Monday night.