LeBron James makes it look easy in opener against Celtics
Cavaliers superstar scores at least 35 points in fifth straight playoff game
LeBron James settled into the chair at the postgame news conference and relaxed. His eyes were mostly hidden by his black cap, and the word in red letters that appeared most prominently on the front of his black hoodie, an ode to rapper Kendrick Lamar, pretty much summed up James’ night.
James played the first game of the Eastern Conference finals as if he had discovered a video game cheat mode. He made 38 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists look so easy in Cleveland’s 117-104 Game 1 win that it left you scratching your head over how the Boston Celtics were able to enter the playoffs with home-court advantage.
James served notice Wednesday that he has the ability to determine the length of this series. He scored at least 35 points in his fifth straight playoff game — joining Michael Jordan as the only players to do that twice in the playoffs.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got into the league,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who made the jump to the NBA from Butler in 2013. “I didn’t think he could get any better. He’s a good player.
“A great player.”
How great? James made 10 shots in the first half, with each and every one coming within 3 feet of the basket on the way to a 23-point, 5-rebound, 4-assist stat line during a first half in which the Cavaliers led by as many as 26.
One sequence midway through the second quarter was telling. James casually dribbled beyond the 3-point line, patiently waiting for the mismatch he desired. Teammate Tristan Thompson obliged, setting a screen that resulted in King James going one-on-one with Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics’ newly knighted folk hero after his Game 7 heroics against the Washington Wizards on Monday.
James backed up a couple of feet and dribbled the ball through his legs a few times. Suddenly he attacked, blowing by Olynyk easily as he exploded to the rim for an easy layup.
Whether it was Jae Crowder, Jaylen Brown, Olynyk or Gerald Green on defense, every Celtic player who tried to defend James failed miserably.
James, at times, appeared to be toying with his overmatched opponents.
“That’s the mindset that you have to have when you go on the road for a Game 1,” James said. “You can’t start off a game shooting a bunch of jump shots. We’ve got guys who can shoot the heck out of the ball. But for myself, I have to be in attack mode and just put the pressure on the defense and see what happens.”
What happens is James is so tough to handle that the extra attention he attracts opens up opportunities for others.
The main beneficiary in Game 1 was Kevin Love, who had 32 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes. Love had been quiet for Cleveland since scoring 27 points in the second game of the opening-round series against Indiana, a game that was played a month ago.
With Thompson adding 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds for the Cavaliers, the Boston front line that helped the Celtics get past the Wizards was dominated. James, Love and Thompson hit a combined 30 of 47 shots (63.8 percent) in a game in which the Cavaliers’ starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving (11 points, 4-of-11 from the field) and J.R. Smith (two points on just two shots) were virtually invisible.
“Definitely, our two bigs set the tone,” James said. “Kev and Double T [Thompson] were phenomenal.”
Give the Celtics credit for playing a second half with a little more fire. They tried to physically challenge James more: Brown and Crowder did their best to bump him when challenging shots, and Isaiah Thomas even went body-to-body on him, knocking James down as he attempted a dunk.
The Celtics made a few mini runs that had their desperate fans cheering when the team cut the deficit to 20. Rookie Brown gave the Celtics quality minutes off the bench, demonstrating hustle in finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds while occasionally finding himself matched up with James.
“It’s just playing basketball,” Brown said. “He laced up his shoes just like I laced mine up.”
Nice cliché, Jaylen, but it’s not the same.
That’s like saying Marvis Frazier had a chance because he laced up his gloves the same as Mike Tyson before their one-sided 1986 fight ended 30 seconds into the first round.
Boston’s bench outscored Cleveland’s (34-14). Boston outscored the Cavaliers by nine in the second half, even getting as close as 11 points with just over a minute to play.
And still, a game Cleveland won by 13 felt like a blowout.
That’s because James continues to show signs that he’s superhuman. It would be hard to find a player in NBA history who continues to improve while playing at an extremely high level 14 years into his career.
“He’s better than when I got into the league, a lot better,” Stevens said. “He’s a pretty physical guy. We need to do a better job in other ways.”
The Celtics need to do a better job in getting Thomas going. Thomas had 17 points and 10 assists but never had an impact on a game that might have played out differently if the Celtics had made some of their open looks early.
“Almost all the first half we got what we wanted, we just couldn’t capitalize,” Thomas said. “It’s tough to continue playing hard when you don’t see shots fall. We can’t let that happen again.”
How bad was Wednesday night for Boston? Olynyk, cheered loudly when he entered the game after his Game 7 heroics against Washington, went from fourth-quarter star on Monday to fourth-quarter garbage time two nights later.
Aside from that Game 7, only the second series to go the limit this postseason, the 2017 playoffs have been a bore. As the Golden State Warriors dominate the San Antonio Spurs, it makes us all want to fast-forward through what appear to be one-sided conference finals and launch the matchup we all want to see.
The earliest this series can end is Game 4 next Tuesday.
The earliest a Cleveland-Golden State final can begin is June 1.
It’ll be another two weeks before we see a competitive basketball series.