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 team’s 17 3-pointers, six players scored in double figures and the Cavs, who have spent the season seeking chemistry and cohesion, were connected defensively.
“Even when things broke down, we just covered for one another,” James said. “We made them make extra passes. We made them make extra dribbles. We were flying around, and I just happened to be one of the guys on the floor that wanted to fly around as well.”
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.
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.
Not this time.
“The toughest team sets the rules,” Rozier said. “They came out aggressive from the jump and never looked back. We’ve got to play aggressive from the rip. Tonight, we were all over the place, playing too fast and doing things we didn’t want to do.”
The Cavs 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 said earlier Saturday 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.
Boston leads 2-1
Game 1: Boston 108, Cleveland 83
Game 2: Boston 107, Cleveland 94
Game 3: Cleveland 116, Boston 86
Monday: Boston at Cleveland, 8:30
x-Wednesday: Cleveland at Boston, 8:30
x-Friday: Boston at Cleveland, 8:30
x-Sunday, May 27: Cleveland at Boston, 8:30
Series tied 1-1
Game 1: Golden State 119, Houston 106
Game 2: Houston 127, Golden State 105
Sunday: Houston at Golden State, 8
Tuesday: Houston at Golden State, 9
Thursday: Golden State at Houston, 9
x-Saturday, May 26: Houston at Golden State, 9
x-Monday, May 28: Golden State at Houston, 9