LeBron James is only getting better with age, and Game 1 vs. the Celtics proves it
LeBron is finding new ways to devastate his opponents this postseason
BOSTON -- After scoring 38 points on 14-for-24 shooting with seven assists, nine rebounds and two steals, after making the No. 1-seeded Boston Celtics look like they belong in a different league, after leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their ninth straight victory in this year's playoffs, the first question posed to LeBron James on Wednesday was, "Right now, would you say this is the most comfortable you've felt in your entire career?"
James' response: "It's too hard to say." He then downplayed his dominance, saying he is "just trying to make plays," and praised big men Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson for setting the tone in the Cavaliers' 117-104 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals (in truth, James is the one who set the tone, and Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said as much).
While James' answer wasn't particularly revealing, the question itself said it all. In his 14th season, less than a month removed from ESPN The Magazine publishing a cover story about his inevitable breaking point, the best player on the planet is making near-perfection in the postseason look easy. Wednesday's performance was the fifth straight game he has scored at least 35 points. His playoff averages of 34.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists on 56.0 percent shooting are unprecedented in the modern era, per Basketball-Reference, and the fact he has made 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers seems a little unfair.
If you compare and contrast today's LeBron with younger versions, you'll see he has lost some of his explosiveness. Some of the hangtime, too, is gone. He is more cerebral now, though, and he knows exactly when and how to harness his still-special athleticism and physicality. In Boston, he said you can't start a series on the road by taking a bunch of jump shots. He wanted to get to the rim.
"I have to be in attack mode and just put the pressure on the defense and see what happens," James said.
What happened? Let's start with James setting a screen for Kyrie Irving, then making an acrobatic reverse layup between two Celtics:
Isolated against Jae Crowder in the corner, James used a couple of jab steps, then got to the paint with two hard dribbles, zooming past the soft help defense and finishing with his left hand:
Matched up with Al Horford on an inbounds play, James again needed only two dribbles to get all the way to the rim, and Boston offered little resistance:
With a head of steam, James acted as a lead guard and just drove right at Horford, putting the big man on his heels and again laying it in easily.
After getting a switch with the slow-footed Kelly Olynyk, James used a simple crossover to get where he wanted to go, evading the help from Jaylen Brown and -- you guessed it! -- making another layup.
Forcing another switch with Olynyk, James casually dribbled between his legs twice behind the 3-point line, then rocketed toward the rim and, yeah, you know what happened:
The silly part is that all of that happened in the first quarter. James did not let the game come to him or feel out the Celtics' defense. He knew that they didn't want to double-team him because of his passing ability and the shooters surrounding him, so he bulldozed them.
In the second quarter, Boston tried to use guard Marcus Smart as his primary defender. Smart is physical, intelligent and fearless, but he is also 6-foot-4. James simply backed him down and shot over him. It felt like bullying. The Celtics tried a couple of other guys, but aside from a few nice possessions from Brown, a rookie, nothing came close to working.
"I know the guy that's going to start on me," James said. "I know the guy that's going to shift off onto me if a sub happens or if they go small or if they go big. For me, the only thing on my mind is how we can execute the best way we can and get a bucket in this possession, 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. It's not an individual matchup for me, no matter who's in front of me. My mind is always racing on how I can make this the best possession at that particular time."
Crowder said Boston needs to do a better job of showing James bodies when he tries to drive, then recovering back to Cleveland's shooters. At a certain point, though, the Celtics will have to commit to either helping or not. Nobody is better than James at forcing defenses to make an impossible decision, and nobody is harder to deceive with defensive coverages. He has seen it all and committed it all to memory. His mind has never been sharper.
This is why, when Celtics coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that they might need to send more double-teams his way after Game 1, he didn't sound thrilled about it. It is also why Stevens sounded almost awestruck when describing James' decision-making and evolution.
"I've always been so impressed with his mental understanding of the game and the way that he communicates and his insights and the way that he reads defense and offense and everything else," Stevens said. "He's always picking the matchup that he wants. I just said in the coaches meeting right before we left: It's hard to believe, but he's better than when I got into the league. A lot better. Just as you get older, you gain more experiences, you see more things. Yeah, I didn't think he could get any better after that, but he is."
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