LeBron James had a terrible night on Sunday, by his pristine standards at least, and nobody could get away with missing the notice. How could they? James entered Game 3 of the Eastern finals averaging a playoffs-topping 34.3 points per game with 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists per contest, shooting nearly 57 percent from the floor and averaging 16.7 points in the paint. The dude got around, in short bursts at least through 10 undefeated games prior to Sunday, reminding us yet again that James is the best in the world when he wants to be.
He appeared to want to on Sunday, but came away with 11 points, six rebounds, and six assists – a Dennis Johnson box score that only works if you have Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and (probably) Robert Parish peaking at the same time. Two of James’ teammates – Kevin Love and then Kyrie Irving – had their significant moments in this eventual loss, well on their way toward superior stats that would excuse James’ night off, but both faded a bit down the stretch.
LBJ missed all (but) three fourth quarter shots, and shot just 1-8 in the second half overall. His teammates’ performances kept the game close enough to note that James, who did not score in the final 16:39 of the game, had his chances to send Cleveland up 3-0 and failed. A blowout loss would have passed a lot easier.
It’s to the great credit of the NBA observers at large that nobody has gone apoplectic yet, we’re sure they’re getting close on cable TV on Monday but we wouldn’t want to confirm our suspicions via remote control. The Celtics, working without a star in Isaiah Thomas, not only downed the mighty Cavaliers in Cleveland, but they did so while returning from a 21-point lead. On a night where Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, at times, couldn’t miss.
James missed nine times in only 13 attempts from the floor, compounding his issues with six turnovers as well. Following the contest, he (barely) half-jokingly chided a reporter for only posing podium questions after losses. He clashed with a fan, in Cleveland. “Me personally,” he told the assembled media twice after the game, “I didn’t have it.”
The 2016 Finals MVP can’t blame legs, even after a regular season spent leading the league in minutes per game. LeBron and the Cavs have only worked 11 postseason contests in 37 days, compared to a final 38 days of the regular season that saw the team playing 21 times. Better yet, they’re working within the every-other-day pattern that athletes adore; especially after the sort of significant rest that Cleveland’s mostly nights-free spring affords.
That second half just got away from James. He wasn’t terrible in the first half – eight points on 3-5 shooting, five rebounds and five assists – showcasing some of that creative spark in connecting for a dead-ball alley-oop while the Celtics were sleeping. All while Kevin Love, with seven three-pointers and 22 points in the first half, seemed well on his way toward making this The Kevin Love Game. The lead at the half, as you well know, was 16.
The third quarter began with the realization that Kyrie Irving, who had hit seven of eight shots at one point, had a chance to make this The Kyrie Irving Game. Even more so, should these plucky Celtics continue to chip away at that lead.
LeBron, meanwhile, “didn’t have it.”
He bumped into teammates, and let a non-call take him out of a possession. He stayed active defensively, but Al Horford beat him with a nifty low-post move – necessitating a later switch that led to Horford’s clutch basket in the final minute. He made the right passes but also coughed the ball up on two missed connections, nearly threw it away on another behind-the-back spin, and one double-pump on a pass to Kyle Korver probably cost the three-point marksman an open shot.
There were only so many possessions to go around, in either Irving or Love’s Game, and some of them slipped away. One Cavs play didn’t start until half the shot clock elapsed, after point guard Deron Williams sold a legitimate stinger off a Jonas Jerebko hit, the end result featuring one of a couple bail-out three-pointers that James badly missed.
LeBron may have missed on two turned over passes to Kyle Korver and Kevin Love, but Korver showed terrible shot selection on two of his three second half misses, and the odds caught up to Love (after that brilliant first half) on a few of his clanged wide open second half looks. The only possession that saw James running with a head of steam in the open court was stopped in its tracks by an off-ball foul.
Also, Boston whupped Cleveland’s ass in the second half on Sunday.
James was met with hearty, active double teams on most possessions. Al Horford and (especially) Kelly Olynyk played over whichever shoulder James had the time to peek over, with Olynyk expertly staying with James on several drives and misses. Jae Crowder’s ability to wrest the ball cleanly from James in a first quarter possession was telling. By Game 3 Crowder’s timing was exquisite, with his brain and brawn staying intact. His Sunday was superb.
All bad news for James, who flicked away Celtic questions after the game:
“No, no, they didn’t mix up the coverage,” James said. “They did a good job of sprinting back, leveling to the ball, doubling me a little bit more in the post. But like I said, my performance personally was all on me.”
On the other end, even with Isaiah Thomas’ springs sprung until 2017-18, don’t ever underestimate Cleveland’s ability to let you down, defensively. This is still the team that gave up 106 points in losses to the Pistons, twice, the team that allowed the Lakers to score 120. The 21st-ranked defense can give it up to teams led by Marcus Smart, on games won by Avery Bradley’s spin of the Irish.
It’s that twinge, knowing that this thing was inches away, that will probably be enough to rouse the giant. A Boston blowout win would have been boilerplate. No, this thing needed to see Cleveland ahead, and it needed LeBron James to get caught up at the worst possible time.
“But I’m glad it kind of hurt,” James said after Game 3, “that it happened the way it did. Let our foot off the gas a little bit, didn’t keep the pressure on them like we have been accustomed to.”
This can’t continue. Boston without Isaiah Thomas is one thing, but Cleveland’s supposed semi-dominance over Golden State is only predicated on James playing other-worldly ball for 45 minutes.
“I feel some adversity is all part of the postseason,” James said. “I feel like you have to have some type of adversity in order to be successful. If it was going to happen, let it happen now; let us regroup. Let us regroup and all the narrative and everything that was going on, let’s regroup and let’s get back to playing desperate basketball.”
It looked pretty damn “desperate” in the second half of Game 3, though. Partially because the night moved too quickly for LeBron James, but mostly because Boston overwhelmed with its pointed brand of chaos.
– – – – – – –