CLEVELAND – LeBron James didn’t explode. He didn’t take over, force the issue, put the Cleveland Cavaliers’ on his broad back or otherwise go crazy.
Rather than posting some stats line for the ages built from crooked numbers, overstuffed categories, and desperation, the Cavaliers star played masterfully against the Boston Celtics on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena, but in a more nuanced way. In a way he, too, definitely prefers.
Oh James produced his share of marvelous moments in Cleveland's lopsided-from-the-start 116-86 victory in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. But they were beautiful basketball plays as opposed to superhero exploits. With the Cavs staring into an 0-2 hole in the best-of-seven series as the night began, the likelihood of James having to answer his team’s bat signal in full cowl-scowl-and-score mode seemed great.
But when teammates such as George Hill showed newfound aggressiveness early, when erratic gunner J.R. Smith demonstrated his stroke, when big men Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. stayed mobile and active, James could cruise in the gear that suits him best: initiating the Cleveland offense without necessarily finishing it. He’s always been a passer first; Magic Johnson by way of Muscle Beach. On the nights things go best for the Cavs, that’s the role in which he thrives.
“I think my passing is up there with every other aspect of my game,” James said after scoring 27 points, making eight of his modest 12 field goal attempts while distributing 12 assists. “It was something I kind of just knew I had when I first started playing the game of basketball, to be able to see things develop before they actually developed. Then it was on me to kind of put the ball on time, on target to my teammates ever since I was a kid, and I started playing at age nine.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue preceded James in talking with reporters by at least 20 minutes and, yes, he more or less predicted what the four-time Kia MVP would say.
“One thing about it – he prides himself on ‘on time, on target,’” Lue said. “And when guys are open, he wants to make sure they have it right in their shooting pocket to get their shot off. You could see that with [Kyle] Korver tonight. You could see it with J.R. Kevin had a few that he missed that he normally makes. But he really prides himself on passing on time, on target.”
James was asked afterward about several specific deliveries, including a pair of left-handed bounce passes out of double teams that found first Nance, then Thompson for easy baskets. Given that two men on the ball only seems to trigger James’ resourcefulness and creativity in sending it elsewhere, it’s on Celtics coach Brad Stevens now to find ways to snuff such satisfying (for the opposition) plays.
“There’s only one person that can make passes going to his left like that in the league,” Stevens said. “But we’ve got to do a better job with all of our help and with all of our coverages.”
Certain elements of Cleveland’s bounce-back performance were expected. The Cavaliers were going to shoot better from 3-point range if for no other reason than they hardly could shoot worse. After going 14-of-57 in the first two games, they pelted the Celtics by hitting 17-of-34.
Hill was an obvious candidate to boost his results by picking up his pace. With the extra days between Games 2 and 3, Lue and others had implored him to play faster, if only to let the Cavs' offense get into second and third options ahead of the unforgiving shot clock. And Smith, well, there’s little predictable about his shooting from one game to the next, but it’s reasonable to assume Lue would have had a quick hook for him had he not found his groove.
All those things coming together – against a young Boston team that, on the road in these playoffs, has been a shell of its usual self – had the Cavaliers humming as if Toronto was in town. Korver got nine of his 14 points in the inconsequential fourth quarter, but all five Cavs starters had reached double figures by the end of the third.
There was one more reason James didn’t have to overly extend himself with the ball in his hands: Cleveland perked up defensively against a team that had embarrassed it in the two Boston games.
One noticeable adjustment was shifting James’ focus onto Celtics wing Jaylen Brown while putting a little less emphasis on forward Jayson Tatum. Brown was the one who had hurt the Cavs most, particularly early, with 46 points combined in Games 1 and 2. This time, Brown shot 3-of-8 and scored only 10.
“We know Jaylen is a first-quarter player,” Lue said. “He plays good throughout the game, but he really sets the tone early in that first quarter. So we wanted to do a good job on him. I thought LeBron really did a good job of closing out to him, making him put it on the floor, cutting him off and making him play in the crowd.”
James staying engaged and energetic defensively – he blocked two shots and had a pair of steals – naturally rubbed off on his teammates. “Tremendous connectivity” and “greater togetherness,” Stevens called it, lauding Cleveland for how thorough and of a piece its game plan was.
“Just tried to put myself in position to help our team,” James said. “As a group, even when things broke down, we just covered for one another. 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.”
James was done flying around about five minutes into the final quarter. The other Cleveland starters didn’t play at all in that period, and the garbage time offered some low-risk time to Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green and Nance.
James was left, at one point, to play peek-a-boo with his young daughter in the stands at the Q. Which had to be a lot more fun than playing peek-a-boo with whichever Cavaliers teammates were or weren’t going to show up.
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