His teammates? Yep. Even his coach.
“I try as much as possible,” Cleveland’s Mike Brown said Sunday, “to stay out of the way.”
With one of his best performances ever, James carried the Cavaliers to the brink of another playoff sweep. The Atlanta Hawks sure know what they’re up against, having watched their most inspired showing of the series turned into just another loss by the MVP’s 47 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
“Right now, he’s playing at such a high level,” said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, sounding a bit disheartened as his team heads into Game 4 Monday night. “Man, it’s crazy how good he’s playing. It really is.”
James has that look Michael Jordan used to bring out at playoff time, a steely eyed determination to win a championship no matter what’s in the way. If that means taking every big shot, so be it. If that means turning the game into me against them, well, that’s the way it has to be.
James has played 108 minutes in this series—and scored 108 points.
As Brown said, stay out of the way.
While James’ performance in a 97-82 victory Saturday night didn’t quite reach the level of his 48-point effort against Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals—that was the one where he scored his team’s last 25 points in a double-overtime victory, on the way to Cleveland’s first appearance in the NBA championship series—it certainly ranked in the top five.
James made 15 of 25 shots, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range. He drew one foul after another, going 12 of 16 at the free-throw line (compared with Atlanta’s 7-of-11 showing as a team). He led all rebounders with 12, leading the Cavaliers to a mammoth 46-23 edge on the boards. On those rare occasions when he couldn’t create a shot of his own, he dished out eight assists. He also had a steal, as well as a blocked shot.
It sure looked like fun.
“I’m always having fun,” James said. “I love the game with a passion.”
Amazingly for someone who had the ball in his hands so much, he turned it over all of one time.
Murray is a former teammate, but this isn’t the King James he remembers.
“He’s matured a lot since I was there with him. He’s more vocal. He’s the leader of their team,” Murray said. “He’s definitely matured into the superstar he is today.”
The Hawks tried to guard James with two or three players, but it really didn’t matter. Once he pulled up at the top of the key, a good five feet shy of the 3-point line, and hoisted a shot before Atlanta even had time to react.
A couple of times, he dribbled past all five players on the home team, weaving this way and that as though he were a catch-me-if-you-can point guard— not a 6-foot-8, 250-pounder. The result was the same.
“When he’s really got it going,” Williams said, “it doesn’t matter how many players are on him.”
While Brown complained that his team was a bit stagnant offensively, it was certainly easy to understand the way James was playing. After the Hawks went on a 13-0 run that gave them their first second-half lead of the series, the Cavaliers turned to their star to bale them out.
Boy, did he ever.
James scored five points in a 10-2 spurt that closed the third, sending Cleveland to the final period with a still tenuous 72-65 lead. Not to worry. He skipped his usual break at the start of the fourth and turned the quarter into his personal showcase, scoring 13 of Cleveland’s final 25 points before he left with 44 seconds remaining to chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” from what was left of the sellout crowd.
“I knew how important this game was,” James said. “I didn’t want the momentum to shift again. I asked coach to leave me in, so he left me in, and we did what we had to do to win the game.”
Added Brown, “I knew we were not really running anything out there. But whatever we were doing, it was working, so we just let it go.”
The Cavaliers have yet to be seriously challenged in this postseason, setting an NBA record with seven straight double-digit victories. The Hawks know they have little chance of winning this series. At this point, they’d be satisfied with a 48-minute effort.