CLEVELAND – These Cleveland Cavaliers had never seen the MVP hesitant, unsure of himself, and yet everyone could see LeBron James(notes) was still probing the Boston Celtics, his elbow and the freshly minted fragility of his psyche. He has been Herculean in his career, unstoppable, unflappable. And finally something threatened to penetrate basketball's monolith.
"I thought about it a little too much," James said. "It's the first real injury that I've ever had to play with."
When James needed his teammates, they were there for him. Williams hit huge shots, including his first dunk as a Cavalier. Shaquille O'Neal(notes) dropped Rajon Rondo(notes) on his back with a ferocious foul, and he never hurt the Cavaliers again. They had all been brought to Cleveland to be the supporting cast to get James his championship, and maybe he never had needed to lean on them as much as in the Cavs' 101-93 Game 1 victory over the Boston Celtics.
When it mattered, James was genius. He was the Most Valuable Player, a trophy they'll present to him for the second straight year Sunday in his nearby hometown of Akron. He had 35 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Most of all, James pushed back to the perimeter and beat back the doubts – his own, and everyone else's – about his ability to still score everywhere on the floor.
Slowly, surely, James pushed backward on the floor, deepened his shot, and that turned out to be pure poison for the Celtics. They can't beat Cleveland with James on top of his game because Rajon Rondo isn't enough. Paul Pierce(notes) is on a steady decline and no longer can match James shot for shot in a fourth quarter. Kevin Garnett(notes) is a shell, too. This was the Celtics' chance, the reason they were holding onto hope, holding onto an 11-point lead in the third quarter: James hadn't come attacking, but probing. This was the kind of opening James had not given anyone in the NBA, and the Celtics were hell-bent on taking it. Still, the Celtics have been dismissive of the injury.
"The elbow is fine," Doc Rivers scoffed Saturday night. "I'm pretty sure of it, actually."
The Celtics weren't too impressed with James using his left hand to shoot a free throw late in the Chicago Bulls series. They planned to hit him in Game 1, hit them all, but James is so strong, so powerful, it's never that easy. The Celtics weren't too impressed with the drama surrounding several days of practices and breathless medical updates and reports.
When had a Cavalier ever had to snap James out of something – never mind in the playoffs? Truth be told, no one had heard him talk this way, because nothing has ever bothered him. James had come out like the boxer protecting his ribs, measured and cautious and babying that right elbow. He feared hyperextending it, so he stayed with his dribble and drove to the rim. Whenever possible, he used his left hand – even when it was awkward and going back across his body. He still scored on the move, still made it to the free-throw line, still played productively.
With one hand behind his back, James still can be a force. With two, he's untouchable. Perhaps James wasn't himself until the fourth quarter, when he would score 12 of his 35 points, block two shots and hit two crushing 3-pointers. Eventually, resistance was futile for the Celtics. They used to have a defense that could clog him, contain him, but those days are long gone.
James fears his elbow will still be an issue, that it has lingered too long to just go away. He refused to take a cortisone shot for the pain Saturday night, insisting, "I don't like needles." Two armfuls of tattoos offer evidence to the contrary, but whatever: The King is the King here, and his proclamations seldom are met with skepticism.
As much as James seems oddly willing to discuss the elbow – an open invitation for Celtics bullies like Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Glen Davis(notes) to pound away at it – coach Mike Brown shrugs and plays the innocent. "I didn't think he was favoring the elbow. There was not one thing said to me by him, by our trainers. …"
Oh, Brown could see it. Everyone could. Only difference is, Mo Williams said it loud. Hey, LeBron, get over the pain and get us Game 1. Yes, the forever-guarded James shared a surprising revelation late Saturday when he confessed he had been thinking too much about that elbow, that the first true physical trial of his blessed basketball life had played with his mind. The honesty was refreshing, but make no mistake: The Celtics will make it a mission in Game 2 to hit him and test out that threshold for pain.
As puncher's chances go, that's all the Celtics have in this series. They no longer have the machinery to take on that monolith and LeBron James reminded them again Saturday night. Unless something's wrong, unless he has one hand tied behind his back, resistance remains a largely futile act.