BOSTON – “LeBron’s playing at a whole new level,” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyle Korver said, standing in front of his locker a few minutes after the Cavs vanquished the Celtics in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 130-86. “Like, I’ve never seen him play at this level. The aggressiveness, the accuracy… I mean, he’s playing incredible basketball.”
The James that Korver was referring, of course, was LeBron James, Cleveland’s multi-faceted forward who played just under 33 minutes but finished with 30 points, seven assists, four rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots in the Cavs’ win. James shot 66 percent (12-for-18) from the floor, 66 percent (4-for-6) from the 3-point line, and finished with a +45 plus/minus rating. James is now tied with Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to score at least 30 points in eight consecutive playoff games.
“We’ve been having this talk for a long time now, but he’s playing at an unbelievable level and he’s really setting the tone for us early in games,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue.
After Cleveland’s 117-104 win in Game 1, LeBron said, “I don’t even think we played that great tonight.” Apparently Friday night is what happens when the Cavaliers play great. After the first quarter, the Cavs led 32-18 — not ideal for the Celtics, but also not an insurmountable difference for a team accustomed to playing from behind after repeatedly posting lackluster first quarters throughout the regular and postseason.
Then the second quarter began, and the floodgates opened. It began with James knocking down a three. A few plays later, James blocked an Avery Bradley layup in traffic, then isolated against Al Horford and dropped in a midrange jumper, then forced a steal against Marcus Smart, then drained a three over a contesting Jae Crowder. It was like the sellout crowd at TD Garden blinked and suddenly Boston was down 45-20.
The Cavs outscored the Celtics in the second quarter 40-13, with James playing the entire period. James had a +27 plus/minus rating in the second quarter alone. By halftime, the Cavaliers were sitting on a 72-31 lead. Cleveland led by as much as 50, and eventually won by 44, but it was that second quarter domination spearheaded by James that effectively ended the game.
“We’re at our best when we’re out running,” Korver said of that second quarter spurt, “and you can’t get out and run unless you’re getting stops. So, we were able to get some stops and then get out and run, and you know, obviously, LeBron and Kyrie [Irving] putting a ton of pressure on the basket, and Kevin [Love]’s shooting the ball well, and we’ve got a lot of shooters. It’s just really hard to guard.”
“Two games in a row now,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, “I’ve felt like when we’ve missed multiple opportunities offensively, we’ve really let that dictate how we played on the other end of the court. That’s disappointing. They’ve taken advantage of us both nights.”
At some point, just before tipoff, the top three finalists for the NBA MVP award were announced: Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook; Houston’s James Harden; San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. Conspicuous by his absence was James, who was typically terrific in this regular season (26.4 ppg, 8.7 apg, 8.6 rpg), but did not finish among the top three.
James later said he had not seen the results before tipoff and his play wasn’t fueled by any disappointment.
“What are you going to do?” James asked. “My only job is to try to be the MVP for this team every night, put my teammates, put our franchise in position to be successful and ultimately compete for a championship. For me, I know what I bring to the table. This league knows what I bring to the table. That's for you guys to write about. It's not for me to be concerned about.”
While we won’t know who actually won the MVP Award until the NBA Awards Show airs on June 26 (9 pm EST, TNT), as the Cavs romp through the postseason, James is making a pretty strong case for perhaps at least a runoff vote.
“I look at LeBron like Shaq,” said Lue, who was teammates with Shaquille O’Neal on the 1999-2000 Lakers when O’Neal won the MVP award. “I think every year he's the MVP, and you can give him the award every year if you wanted to. When guys have incredible seasons like James Harden did and Westbrook and Kawhi, then you kind of credit those guys and give those guys the nod. But to me, I mean, LeBron is MVP, just like Shaq, you can give it to him every year if you wanted to.”
With the Cavs two wins away from a perfect run to a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, it’s easy to forget this is a Cavs team that stumbled into the postseason, going 23-23 over their last 46 games, and losing seven of their final 11.
“It’s just being in sync,” said Korver. “There’s nothing like playing a game. We don’t do anything live, because Ty doesn’t want someone to get hurt. So we just do drills, cardio, spot-up shooting. So there’s nothing like a game, so to kind of get in game shape it takes a couple of games.”
“I’m a guy who lives in the moment,” said James. “Our team is in a great groove, and I’m happy to be a part of that groove. At the end of the day, we want to try to put ourselves in position to win every game. That’s the goal. Can you do that? Sometimes you come out with an L, but it's how you learn from those experiences that's going to help you out the next time. We are in a good groove as a team, and we want to try to continue that going home.”
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