BOSTON -- Maybe giving the defending champs 10 days off wasn’t such a great idea?
The only rust in Boston on Wednesday was the shade of burgundy on Cleveland’s uniforms, as the Cavaliers blew out the Boston Celtics, 117-104. As always with the Cavs, everything started and ended with the play of Cleveland’s royalty, LeBron James.
In just under 42 minutes, James scored 38 points, had seven assists and grabbed nine rebounds. Everything the Cavaliers did on the offensive end seemed to either begin or end with James, from initiating offense to finding open teammates (Kevin Love pitched in 32 points) to drawing fouls to getting to the free throw line (James was 9-for-11 from the charity stripe).
It was a typically thorough performance from James, who right now is playing with a singular mix of command and poise and craft. During these playoffs, James is regularly stuffing the stat sheet: In Cleveland’s nine postseason games, James is averaging 34.8 points in 42.4 minutes, along with 7.1 assists and 9.0 boards. James is making the right play, the perfect read, on seemingly every possession.
“It’s not an individual matchup for me, no matter who’s in front of me,” James said. “My mind is always racing on how I can make this the best possession at that particular time.”
“He’s really setting the tone for us in these playoffs,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. “It started the second half of the season. I really thought he hit a great stride offensively, and it’s carried over into the playoffs. We’re just kind of riding it, and Kevin and Kyrie (Irving) and everybody else is just filling in.”
Before Wednesday, Cleveland’s last game was on May 7, when they won Game 4 in Toronto. Their reward for sweeping Toronto was 10 days off; the downside that came along with the extended break was the off chance that the Cavs may have needed some time to recover their winning form. Turned out, there was no chance.
“We were just eager to play,” said Cavs guard J.R. Smith. “It’s been 10 days. LeBron, Kyrie [Irving], Kev, the guys have been itching to play against somebody, to just play, period. So, we just came out with a great pop, did it in the last series as well. We just gotta keep that energy going.”
“It’s hard to believe, but [James is] better than when I got into the league. A lot better."
The Celtics have struggled with several slow starts in their last series against Washington, and coach Brad Stevens tried several lineup tweaks to try and counter Boston’s first quarter problems. Cleveland took advantage Wednesday by jumping out to a 22-9 lead and never trailed throughout, leading by as many as 28 points.
James spent most of the first half exploiting mismatches and either powering or spinning his way to the basket. “It was clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him,” said Stevens. James finished the first half with 23 of his 38 points. When the Celtics adjusted in the third quarter and tried to send help, Kevin Love got hot and scored 18 in the period, including 5-for-7 on 3-pointers.
“I don’t even think we played that well tonight,” James said. “We definitely didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’re capable of shooting. I know Kyle [Korver] had three or four very, very good looks that he missed when we had a good stretch. But I think the energy and the effort and the mindset was where it needed to be starting on the road, especially in the Eastern Conference finals.”
The Celtics may have finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference and entered these playoffs as the No. 1 seed, but with Wednesday’s win the Cavaliers have snatched home-court advantage, and they show no signs of slowing down. The last time they lost a game was on April 12, their regular season finale against Toronto. This postseason they have been a perfect 9-0, beginning with sweeps of the Indiana Pacers and Raptors. Stretching back to the 2016 playoffs, this was Cleveland’s 12th consecutive postseason win.
And James remains at the center of it all. In his 14th NBA season, James is not only playing at the peak of his powers, he is somehow continuing to improve.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Stevens, “but [James is] better than when I got into the league. A lot better. Just as you get older, you gain more experiences, you see more things. Yeah, I didn’t think he could get any better after that, but he is. He’s a good player. Great player.”
“When LeBron is playing at this level,” noted Lue, “other guys just have to be solid and I think we’ve got a good chance of winning the game. Let’s see if we can just keep this up.”
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