BOSTON – LeBron James(notes) had never seemed moved, nor impressed, with his coach's diatribe. After a decided Game 2 loss, Mike Brown marched to the podium and derided his Cleveland Cavaliers with ominous words and weighty warnings. Nevertheless, the perfectly placid response of the NBA's MVP suggested a far different, a far more measured, disposition.
While the rest of Cleveland worked itself into a frenzy with fear that one more championship season had reached the cusp of crumbling, James raised only his eyebrows to the chorus, never his voice. Everything about James' vibe was simply, "Relax everyone, I've got this."
Perhaps no one wanted to believe, but yet it's turned into the surest truth of this wobbly Eastern Conference semifinal series. James has hold again, and resistance remains futile. Whatever pain had plagued that right elbow faded with every arcing jump shot and determined drive to the rim. LeBron was LeBron again, and order was restored to his championship destiny.
"If you remember me," James reminded Friday night, "I was real calm. There was no reason for me as a leader to be very angry or feel like it was pressure time for us. … You guys [were] like, 'Why do you seem so calm and Mike seems so, um …' "
So um … um … James didn't finish the sentence on the podium Friday night, because he had finished it on the Garden floor. James had come out of the corner like a young Mike Tyson, all haymakers and hellfire, beating bloody these Celtics with a barrage straight out of their worst nightmare. The Celtics never gathered themselves, never responded.
Twenty-one of his 38 points came in the first quarter of the Cavaliers' 125-94 victory, and James had just delivered a Game 3 victory. He hadn't just won for the first time at Boston in five playoff tries, he had delivered the Boston Celtics the worst home postseason loss in franchise history. Most of all, James had delivered on his greatness. The Cavs take a 2-1 series lead, and maybe much of that Boston belief that the Cavs had become vulnerable, that Boston had jarred them.
Everything changed for the Cavaliers because James no longer babied that right elbow. He didn't grab it. He didn't flinch. Perhaps rest had shooed the pain away, but the floor spaced, the ball moved and the shots fell at the rapid rate of 60 percent Friday night. For everything James delivered, this victory had been a window into the wheels turning together. Antawn Jamison(notes) had 20 points and 12 rebounds and kept learning how to play off Shaquille O'Neal(notes). Anthony Parker(notes) and Delonte West(notes) made 9 of 11 shots.
The Cavaliers were determined defenders, turning Rajon Rondo(notes) into a jump shooter and Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) into invisible, old men. For the most part, these were the Celtics of the regular season: wildly up and down, maddeningly inconsistent. That's who they've been all season, and that's somehow who they still were with three full days' rest.
Rasheed Wallace(notes) disappeared again. Glen "Big Baby" Davis did nothing. Coach Doc Rivers had watched two days of lousy preparation, poor practices and he feared the worst for Game 3. He understood LeBron James was going to come for these Celtics, and he watched his team become willing victims. Just once they tried to foul James hard. Kendrick Perkins(notes) crushed that right arm on a breakaway, earned himself a flagrant and watched James just bounce to his feet, dismiss the blow and carry on.
"Enough with the elbow injury, all right?" Rivers insisted. "&hellip But I don't think we have any resistance. I mean, he was playing HORSE."
For the Cavs, this was the most heartening game of the playoffs. All around James, there hadn't been a game this season when all of these parts that were assembled for a championship chase had worked so perfectly. Jamison had come to understand that you give Shaq the ball but never leave him on an island. Move, cut, give him a chance to make a pass. Give him the chance to make a move to the rim.
All these little things had started to illuminate for the Cavs because LeBron James understood that a road playoff game was no place to ease into a game. At home, you can do it. The crowd carries your teammates. Get them involved early, get them going and then you can close the game late.
"Guys are more confident at home, guys shoot the ball better at home," James said.
As much as anything, these Cavaliers needed to see James push past the issues with his elbow, push past the discussion of a diminished LeBron and watch him dominate again.
Nothing makes these Cavs so alive, so dangerous, as the understanding that the MVP has taken the first, boldest step for them and appears unstoppable again. Everything else followed for the Cavs, everyone joined into the music with him and the Celtics never stood a chance. This was one of those nights when the bell sounded and LeBron James came out of his corner with haymakers and hell's fury.
All these years, all these playoffs games, and no one had ever delivered a beating to basketball's greatest dynasty the way James did Friday night. He had listened to his coach rant and rave after a Game 2 loss, and he did everything but roll his eyes and dismissively wave it away. Did you hear him yell? Did you hear him panic? He left it to Mike Brown and everyone else, because ultimately James understands the truth of the matter: Once and for all, LeBron James controls everything here.