Millions are spent every year on videogames that allow people to experience through a controller the dominance LeBron James brings to real life. There is nothing routine about such pwnage; the dedication James brings to bear is enough to shame his teammates into longer practice sessions and extra workouts. Yet at a moment when many thought James might be sliding inexorably back to earth he’s soaring still higher, like vintage Michael Jordan on a gravity-defying dunk.
By the age of 32 most athletes have peaked. Need we remind you that LeBron James is not even close to “most athletes”? Hell, “exceptional athletes” are mere acquaintances given the exclusive company his play has earned. As well as he played during the regular season – enough to make it back into the MVP discussion after a couple years absence – his postseason makes that seem like a pace car lap. James is pulling his own Martin Luther, nailing his unparalleled vitae to the peach basket hoop. To gaze upon it is to open the Ark of the Covenant – in a word, face-melting.
James is averaging 34.8 points, 9 boards, 7 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 56/43/74. Only 14 players have averaged that many points in the playoffs and the last NBA player to do so was LeBron James (35.29 in 2009). Michael Jordan did it five times between 1986 and 1993 (when he was 30). Only six others have scored that much (Elgin Baylor twice, Wilt Chamberlain twice, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Bob McAdoo).
Last night James finished with 38 on 14-24 shooting (half his 10 misses from 3), and 9-11 from the line, with 9 rebounds, 7 assists and two steals in 42 minutes. Just standard brilliance. Indeed, LeBron is doing all of this without seeming to break much of a sweat, suggesting there’s still another gear above this, which we can only presume slows the action down to NEO speed, complete with basketball trails and unhappy green-clad Agent Smiths.
James hit seven of eight in the first quarter as the Cavaliers jumped out to a double-digit lead they hardly relinquished. As is James’ wont when he really wants to score, James put his head down and went to the hole with consistent success, even when the Celtics made admirable attempts to stop him, and especially when he had Kelly Olynyk on him.
“[LeBron] made it clear he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him,” Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said afterwards, contemplating the difficulty covering James. “We need to do a better job in a lot of ways, though I don’t always think it’s the guy that’s guarding him necessarily. It’s what guys are doing around him. Being active, being long, being deceptive in help. This is easier said than done because those guys are all shooters. So who do you help off of? Once we started overhelping a little bit Love goes nuts in the third quarter. This is the predicament they put you in.”
We spoke with Michael Reghi in a podcast posted before yesterday’s game
and both agreed that Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson would be key contributors. Kyrie Irving – who hasn’t been particularly sharp all postseason – has a tough matchup with Avery Bradley spending a lot of time on him, but Love and Thompson are tough for Boston to cover.
Thompson has destroyed Horford with his speed and energy. Horford can’t use his quickness as he can on most bigs and isn’t gifted in the post-up nor on the boards where Thompson eats him up like the unmarked brownie in the office frig. Love on the other hand is a post-up nightmare for the Celtics who don’t have great options to cover him.
They can play Horford or Crowder on Love, but who does that put on Thompson? Late in the game Boston tried Marcus Smart, who is scrappy and athletic enough to perhaps box out Thompson. If Boston can get Smart on Thompson, they can play smaller with Crowder on James and Horford on Love. That’d probably be their preference, but that small lineup typically gets crushed on the boards.
Love got off to a slow start hitting his first shot then missing his next four. However he hit all three in the third, including a couple hoops to open the second when LeBron went to the bench (after playing the entire first quarter). This, most of you realize, is an entirely new look for the Cavs and we’ll have to see how it works. Love did his biggest damage in the third when he got hot from distance and sunk five triples en route to a sizzling 18-point third quarter on 5-7 shooting from three (and three free throws on a fouled three attempt).
Thompson grabbed six offensive boards in the game including four in the first quarter, helping the Cavaliers jump out to a 30-19 lead. Boston survived on Bradley’s 9 first quarter points, while Horford and Thomas had four points between them. Two of Bradley’s four baskets were backcuts for layups that exposed J.R. Smith and are Bradley’s specialty. (He also had an “and-1” on a very sketchy transition blocking foul on Love.)
Thompson’s play all night was key for the Cavaliers as he put up 20 points on a perfect 7-7, and finished as respectable (for him) 6-10 at the line (despite a late Hack-a-Tristan attempt). Though he wasn’t as much of a force on the boards after the first (Thompson had just four rebounds the rest of the way), his play on defense and passing the ball in space was key.
He picked up a couple assists, and was great defensively, even when stuck alone on Thomas by the arc, and made his presence particularly in the opening of the third, as the Cavs made it clear they weren’t letting the Celtics back in the game.
“Tristan was big, he’s our energy, he’s our motor defensively he was great… finishing around the basket, making the right plays and then his toughness and his will, it’s big for us,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue. “I think his physicality is huge for us, especially against this team.”
Lue continued to fool around with Channing-less second squad featuring Love at the five with Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson (AWOL last series) up front, Deron Williams and Iman Shumpert in the backcourt. Love rebounded from a tough first quarter (1-5 shooting) with a couple baskets while James sat, but the Celtics put a 5-0 run together including a Marcus Smart bucket-and-1 to cut the lead to 36-25 before James returned.
After scoring 15 first quarter points, James deferred to teammates. Love and Shumpert drained threes, Thompson sunk a putback, and Irving and Love added two free throws apiece in a 12-0 run that for all intents and purposes put the game out of reach. Irving had two assists and two steals in the segment while the Celtics missed six shots (including four threes) and made three turnovers. The run was capped by a Love three off an offensive rebound kick-out and a Thompson alley-oop off a Kyrie drive (out of a Kyrie/LBJ pick-and-roll).
The Cavaliers held that 20+ point lead until the last three minutes of the third when the Celtics made a 9-3 run. But it was already too late. For the Celtics there weren’t many positive notes. Rookie Jaylen Brown looked good scoring 10 points (5-7 shooting) and grabbing 9 boards (four offensive) in 20 minutes. Cleveland will undoubtedly see more of him.
Marcus Smart fouled out in 21 minutes with just six points, but made his presence felt with two steals and a blocked shot. Gerald Green also made it out of deep bench exile helping the Cavaliers stage a fourth quarter comeback to the more respectable 14-point final deficit by going 3-5 from distance for 11 points. Bradley and Crowder both scored 21 and had good nights, but not nearly enough to make up for Horford & Thomas’ combined 11-30 from the field.
That’s not even to mention Thomas’ defensive troubles. The Cavaliers went at him – though hardly exclusively – with solid success. (Thomas finished the game a team worse -20.) But over the course of the playoffs, Boston is 10 points better defensively and a couple points better offensively with Thomas off the floor. While we’re not sure if they can sustain that kind of offensive production in large minutes, it’s certainly a reminder of how much of a disability Thomas is on defense.
However, as bad as Thomas is, the rest of the Cavaliers big men are twice as bad. As Michael Reghi pointed out in our podcast, the Cavaliers are allowing 28 less points per 100 possessions (pCp) when Tristan is on the floor than off. Honestly this seems hardly possible, but it’s non-negligible numbers. As you can see, the team is more than 15 points better offensively with Tristan off the floor, and the ball moves better (63% assists versus 49% when he’s on the floor, a 2.5 assist to turnover rating, and a 9.2% better EFG%).
It’s an enormous discrepancy, but it allows Lue the luxury of trying to squeeze out minutes with an offensive juggernaut (128.3 pCp is 15 points better than Golden State’s season rate, which was seven-tenths of a point better than their rating the year before, just to give you an inkling how off the scale this is). Spotting them against second teams allows Lue to not expose the inferior defense as much while taking advantage of their superior firepower against generally inferior defenders.
We’ll Call It Defense
The Cavaliers came out with greater intensity and effort than fans might’ve expected given the long layoff but the Celtics poor shooting, particularly in the first half, made the defense look a lot better than it was. The Cavs did force 14 deflections (10 for Boston) and recovered 15 of the 26 loose balls; so the energy was generally good. On the other hand, the Celtics got 33 assists (including 12 secondary assists) to the Cavaliers 21 (and 5) – evidence of how much better Boston’s ball movement was than the results they got.
Boston shot 16-45 (36%) in the first half, including 5-11 (46%) from the free throw line. In the second half Boston shot 58% (held the Cavs to 41%), hit 10-22 of their threes (46%), and made just 6 turnovers against 19 assists. However the Cavaliers made just one turnover in the second half and 41% of their threes, as well as beating the Celtics from the line 13-5.
However the Cavaliers’ low second half shooting percentage is cause for concern as is the fact they were outrebounded 26-16 in the second half. Those looking for causes to worry in a blowout will start there.
Cavaliers Coach Lue was surprisingly forthright with TNT sideline reporter, Kristin Ledlow as the start of the second quarter, explaining the Cavaliers’ defensive approach: “Make him play in a crowd. We’ve got to show our help early. We know they have shooters. We’ve got to get out to the shooters once we help.”
The thing was, at least in the first quarter, the Celtics clanked a lot of wide-open threes. It was a bit of a surprise that the Cavaliers simply showed and ran back to their men so quickly when Cleveland trapped him during their last match-up, as did the Wizards. Instead, they simply ‘showed’ or hedged hard (come out to cut of the ballhandler momentarily, giving dribbler’s man time to recover while the screener’s defender recovers back to his man.)
As you can see, the Celtics often tried to use pin-downs, dribble hand-offs and other off-the-ball action to clear Thomas of his man before he receives the ball. While they couldn’t generate that many good looks (Thomas was 3-11 in the first half, 4-8 in the second), Isaiah did find other open Celtics who simply couldn’t put down the shot. Meanwhile the Cavaliers were largely forgoing threes and getting to the hole. Indeed it could almost be a Houston Rockets shot chart given the lack of midrange shots. Cleveland was only 2-9 from 3 in the first half, but 20-30 on 2s, almost all at the rim.
“You never want this to happen, but I feel that zapped us on the other end a little bit,” Stevens said afterwards. “We missed some makeable opportunities. They did a great job of attacking the paint, and it was clear those guys had really emphasized that.”
The Cavaliers came out better prepared and with better focus. This hasn’t always been the case this year, but it seems apparent that the regular season was a mirage, with little to be drawn from the experience. Sure the Cavaliers can lose focus, and definitely did in the second half, but their offensive skill’s given them a long leash and nobody’s come close to stretching it.
We expect a much better showing from the Celtics, and a better challenge for the Cavaliers. Going down 0-2 going to Cleveland would be a death knell, making Game 2 a must-win for Boston. It wouldn’t surprise us if they won, nor would it surprise us if LeBron came out like he did in Game 3 versus Toronto and cast the Celtics as Old Yeller, ready to be brought around the back of the barn.
For the Celtics to forestall that fate they will need a big game from Thomas and all their role players. Crowder, Bradley and Horford all need to step up because Boston doesn’t have individual skilled players, their skill is in the teamwork and ball movement. But the Cavaliers are much more skilled, especially across the frontcourt, requiring everyone to contribute to win. Cut off the water to say Bradley and Horford and the offense shrivels.
From the Cavaliers perspective the solid ballhandling (8 turnovers all game) and shot selection are a boon, though the Celtics defense clearly was focused on taking LeBron one-on-one and staying close to the Cavs shooters. This means less Cavaliers ball movement and more ISO, but if you can’t stop LeBron, cutting off the ancillary pieces does no good.
We believe LeBron wants to step on the Cavaliers throat and earn some extra time to prepare for the Warriors. (What if both close out early and get to sit around for several days gameplanning for each other?) Avery Bradley had it right when he tweeted “we won’t be swept.” Such moral victories are all that’s on the table and James seems intent on clearing it before that happens. We’ve never seen him looking so determined – so it’s going to take everything the Celtics have just to take one game. Boston’s a scrappy team, but they don’t have enough firepower to compete.
You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. We wrote a book about last year’s championship, King James Brings The Land a Crown. You can read about it and order signed copies from cavschampions.com. You can hear us every Monday at 11am talking Cavs with Michael James on the Defend Cleveland Show on WRUW-91.1.
The Celtics encountered an uncomfortable truth last night: One team in the league has the greatest of all-time, he’s mission-bound and in no mood to mess around. Sucks to be a Celtics fan, first pick and all, because LeBron James is not available in next month’s draft, and the King is even less anxious than Lear to pass on the crown. James made this abundantly clear in a 117-104 pasting of the Boston Celtics.