BOSTON – The NBA’s best player took the floor against the East’s top-seeded team Wednesday, and within minutes you knew who would get the better of it. Indiana had no answer for LeBron James – Toronto either – and here was Boston, with its crafty coach, its waves of perimeter defenders, and with the momentum needed to nudge this runaway Cavs train off its tracks. Hours later, reality: Indiana and Toronto couldn’t slow Cleveland. Boston won’t either.
This wasn’t a game – it was a bludgeoning. The Cavaliers took a 2-0 lead, expanded it to 28 and cruised to a 117-104 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. Cleveland scoffed at the idea that the 10 days that have passed since dispatching Toronto would have a corrosive effect. It didn’t, and the Cavs have James, who posted an effortless 38-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist line, to thank for that.
The MVP is voted on immediately after the regular season and, man, isn’t that great for everyone else? James Harden was brilliant and Russell Westbrook was better, but this postseason has been a reminder that when the lights shine brightest, James has no peer. The casual way in which he breezed by Boston’s defenders had to have been demoralizing. The eight different players who took a turn on James had to wonder what more they could do to slow him down.
“He’s playing at a high level right now,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s the reason we are riding him so much.”
Whatever James decides to do, he does better than anyone. In the first half he was aggressive, overpowering Jae Crowder and blowing by Kelly Olynyk whenever the Celtics switched. “It was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. When the scorer became a playmaker, it was Kevin Love (32 points) who reaped the rewards.
Once, it seemed the Love-LeBron relationship was doomed; today, they appear in lockstep. James is constantly looking for ways to motivate Love, poking, prodding, digging to bring out his best. He says the Cavs need “Kevin from Minnesota” – not the numbers, mind you, but the aggressive player Love once was. Assault the backboards, exploit mismatches and trust that James will find you.
“For me, the only thing on my mind is how we execute the best way we can and get a bucket,” James said. “Either if I can get myself a shot or if I can drive, get my shooters a shot, or if I can get a double-team in the paint or get to the free-throw line.”
Fourteen seasons, 1,061 regular-season games, another 208 in the playoffs and is there any sign of a player beginning to fade? The bulldozing drives, the feathery jumpers – there is little in LeBron’s game that isn’t elite. In the fourth quarter James drove on Gerald Green and lofted a skyscraping turnaround toward the rim. It was a “let’s see if I can do this” kind of shot – one that eased through the net like so many others.
“It’s hard to believe, but he is better than when I got in the league,” Stevens said. “A lot better. As you get older, you gain more experiences. You see more things. I didn’t think he could get any better. But he is. He’s a good player. A great player.”
Boston will play better on Friday; really, it couldn’t play worse. Isaiah Thomas pieced together 17 points, but the aggressiveness in his game was missing. Al Horford (11 points, eight rebounds) was outplayed by Tristan Thompson (20 points, nine rebounds), while Olynyk, a hero in the Game 7 East semifinal win over Washington, was on mop-up duty in Game 1. Fatigue was clearly a factor, and Boston vowed to play with more energy the next time out.
“With a team like that, the defending champions, you can’t let them hit first,” Thomas said. “We’ll make sure it’s different in Game 2.”
It’s been an astonishing week for Boston, conference finalists on Monday, owners of the No. 1 pick a day later. The franchise is in tremendous position long term, but Wednesday’s loss was evidence of just how far the Celtics have to go. The patience needed to wait for a potentially transcendent talent like Markelle Fultz to develop won’t come easy, but Boston has to play the long game here. With James at the peak of his powers, waiting him out may be the smartest play.
Boston hates being labeled a weaker top seed, but on Wednesday the pecking order in the conference could not have been clearer. Cleveland coasted through the regular season and promptly blew up the criticism that it could not simply turn it on in the playoffs. Down went Indiana, out went Toronto and now Boston is one loss closer to elimination. LeBron James keeps coming, and no one knows how to stop him.
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