If you are on the Lebron James side of the Greatest Player of All Time debate, last night was not an entry you want to point to for your argument. By all accounts, Lebron had a fantastic game, notching 26 points on 50% shooting to go along with 10 rebounds and 5 assists. However, he had an uncharacteristic game high six turnovers, and they were not the type of turnovers that you brush off.
For most of the second half, Lebron looked, dare we say it, tired. Mark Jackson pointed it out during the telecast and Doris Burke confirmed via a camera operator of all people, that in fact, James had been noticeably putting his hands on his hips and knees between plays. Something, the camera operator assured us, he prides himself in not doing.
More noticeably however was his play during the game. During key moments when the Cavaliers seemed to be going on a run to cut the lead down, it was Lebron (and a few of his teammates) who would have an inadvertent turnover, often times leading to a Celtics basketball.
But even that wasn’t the biggest problem, as the Cav’s converted five more points off of turnovers than the Celtics did. The biggest problem, which has been the Cav’s problem all season and playoffs, is that not only did the role players not show up to play (Thompson, Hill, and Smith combined to go 2-for-14 for the night with Clarkson adding a nice 3-for-10 off the bench), and their three point shooting wasn’t remotely at a place where they could contend in the game.
The previous games showed a glimmer of hope that if Cleveland could shoot like they were built to – lots of threes with at minimum a league average shooting percentage in the mid 30’s – and if they at least tried on defense, then this Celtics team couldn’t keep up. Instead, we saw a home court Celtics team ready for the challenge of the night, and a Cavaliers team that took a punch in the mouth the first quarter and never recovered.
The Celtics showed up, their young players played big, and their role players played their parts. At some point in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers went ona 9-0 run to cut the lead, and try as Boston did to let them turn the corner and get the lead to two possessions, the Cavaliers couldn’t convert on layups and wide open three’s.
Each team does markedly better at home and even worse on the road. The Celtics are 10-0 at home this postseason, with home court advantage. The night belongs to Jayson Tatum, who played like the second coming of Paul Pierce (but ten years younger), and Al Horford, who seemingly willed his team to protect the lead. Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris added hustle plays where it seemed they would win every 50-50 ball on the entire court.
As much as we like to point to Lebron, his fatigue, and his overall aura on the court, this series is coming down to how well his team can play around him, and how well the Celtics can play within their system. Michael Jordan once scored 63 points in this same building in Boston in a playoff game, and lost. If this Celtics team can hold serve at home, and play the way they’re built to play – ball movement, open three’s and a defense reminiscent of Cold War Soviet Russia, than we may be remembering Lebron as a player who played out of his mind and it still wasn’t good enough.
Friday night in Cleveland will mark an important moment – not only for Lebron, but for this Celtics team. We’ll either look back like we do with the 2012 ECF’s and say this is the game Lebron decided to stamp his place on top of the pyramid, or it’ll be the beginning of the 30 for 30 Documentary on this young Celtics team and their domination for the next 5 – 10 years.