INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP)—LeBron James swished a few uncontested 20-foot jump shots. He made layups, finger rolls, 3-pointers and free throws—a few left-handed. He even worked on a few trick shots in a friendly game of “P-I-G.”
On Friday, James hardly missed.
It’s so easy when the Boston Celtics aren’t around.
Cleveland’s superstar looked relaxed and upbeat on Friday as he and the Cavaliers, down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, studied film and shot around while trying to figure out how to solve Boston’s boa-constricting defense.
Over the first two games, James shot 19 percent (8-of-42) from the field. The All-Star forward committed twice as many turnovers (17) as he had field goals (8). He’s 0-for-10 on 3-pointers, and his 16.5 points per game average is 13.5 lower than his league-leading mark during the regular season.
He has looked confused, frustrated and overwhelmed.
“I don’t think he’s ever had two games like this,” teammate Wally Szczerbiak. “But the poor guy’s got so much on his shoulders. He’s got to carry the weight of the team, the weight of the offense, and he’s got everyone pointing fingers at him and trying to stop him.”
The Cavaliers may be without starting forward Ben Wallace for Saturday night’s Game 3. He’s listed as doubtful because of allergies and a left inner ear infection, which made him dizzy and limited him to just four minutes in Game 2. Anderson Varejao will start if Wallace can’t play.
Accustomed to breaking or sharing records with immortals like Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain, James’ field goal percentage is the lowest to start a series by a player with at least 30 attempts since Philadelphia’s Joe Fulks (17.6 percent) in 1948.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, James’ two-game shooting percentage is also the lowest in the shot-clock era in the NBA playoffs among players who attempted at least 40 shots over any two consecutive games in one postseason.
The previous low of 19.5 percent was set in 1961 by Boston’s Tom Heinsohn, now a Celtics broadcaster who had a front-row seat to witness James’ brick outings of 2-for-18 in Game 1 and 6-for-24 in Game 2 on Thursday night.
But despite the statistical ugliness, the Cavaliers remain confident that James, who got off to a similarly slow start in last year’s conference finals against Detroit, will regain his shooting touch at home. James is missing shots that he normally makes, and the Cavs feel it’s only a matter of time that the rim widens for the 23-year-old.
“I’ve seen him hit some of those shots time and time again,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “We went through and watched the tape (of Game 2) twice. He had a handful of looks that were not open, but wide open. He’s going to have to keep shooting that thing. I believe in him. The team believes in him and when that shot goes in, it’s going to loosen everything else up for him the rest of the way.”
Brown wants James to be remain aggressive. Like San Antonio did in last year’s NBA finals, Boston is making it tough for James to breathe let alone get to the basket. The league’s best defensive team during the regular season has confounded James with an assortment of defensive looks.
While not directly criticizing James’ game, Brown made it clear that James has had chances to score but has simply missed them or passed them up.
“There are times when he’s wide open, and you can’t be in this league and be wide open and not want to take those shots,” Brown said. “He’s got to keep stepping in and taking them. If he’s open, I want him to take the shot.
“He’s got to step up and shoot it and if he misses five in a row, I want him to take the sixth one the next time down.”
James isn’t the only Cavalier finding it difficult to put the ball into the basket against the Celtics. Cleveland is shooting 33 percent, a number that had better go up in a hurry or the defending conference champions will be making summer vacation plans by early next week.
Boston’s primary defensive objective has been to stop James, and the Celtics have done so with relative ease. Sometimes, their big men—Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, James Posey and Leon Powe—blitz James on double-teams and other times they back off and force him to the wing. Wherever he goes, a green-and-white jersey—or two—is in pursuit.
“They are doing a heck of a job on him,” guard Delonte West said. “They have three guys surrounding him, and even the greatest players of all time, it’s tough to go when you got three guys defending you. As far as shooting, you are going to have games when the ball just doesn’t fall. The best players can have bad games.
“But I don’t think it’s something that you are going to see for long.”
The Celtics held a brief film session at their practice facility Friday before boarding a plane for Cleveland. Boston held a 2-0 lead in the opening round, but lost all three games at Atlanta and got pushed to a Game 7 by the Hawks. They don’t want to repeat that.
“We want to focus on trying to get this first win in Cleveland,” Garnett said. “We are going into a hostile building and we know that they play really well at home, they have a lot of confidence at home, and they play with tremendous energy at home.”
James was not available for interviews following the Cavs’ workout. He came in early for some extra shooting practice, and after watching film, he shot for fun with Amanda Mercado, the team’s communications director, in a game of “P-I-G.” She had him tied at “P.”
On Saturday, the Cavs, who are attempting to become the 14th team to overcome an 0-2 deficit, are counting on James making more than he misses. Brown was asked if he was hoping one shot would trigger a breakout by his star.
“Nah,” he said. “With LeBron, I don’t need to be hopeful. I believe in him.
“He’s going to get it done.”