The Cavs opened Game 3 with a huge 22-6 run, and that was more or less that. This was not a case of the winning team grabbing an early lead behind a fluky start and nursing it cautiously until the final buzzer—the Cavs were forceful and decisive early, and did some cool and different things to challenge Boston’s defense, and it rattled the Celtics, and the Cavs pushed their advantages right to the very end of the game.
Among the cool things Cleveland did in Game 3 is this: LeBron James did less meticulous orchestrating and targeted resting, and more of the little off-ball things that he often gets away with not doing against less organized teams. Things like rolling to the hoop, and cutting from the weak side, and hustling back in transition defense, and closing out hard on shooters, and fighting harder on screens, and rotating early and aggressively. In an effort befitting an absolute must-win playoff game, LeBron was active as hell. Here he is dropping away from Al Horford in the corner to stone gigantic Aron Baynes at the rim:
And here he is sniffing out a roll to the cup and erasing a Semi Ojeleye layup:
In the second quarter, with the Celtics already looking jittery and flustered, LeBron used a hard jab to set up a backdoor cut on Marcus Morris, and threw down a ridiculous soaring reverse dunk:
Morris played that the way he did because, by and large, 33-year-old LeBron is not a guy who cuts backdoor like he means it. If Kevin Love is holding the ball at the top of the arc and LeBron is in the neighborhood, nine times out of 10 LeBron is coming to Love to get the damn ball. What will follow, nine times out of 10, is a quick reset, or a pick and roll, or an isolation, but in the vast majority of instances the defense is gearing up to stop LeBron as a ball-handler, and not at all as, like, Rip Hamilton, but built like a freight train and rumbling into the paint with hatred for the rim burning in his heart.
In the third quarter, with the Celtics already exhibiting the classic puppy-after-the-first-day-of-serious-training googly eyes, LeBron inbounded the ball to Kevin Love and immediately cut hard baseline, launching into Terry Rozier’s airspace before Rozier could even process that a switch was needed:
I think sometimes it’s easy to look at a given game from LeBron and assume that the amount of cool-ass shit he does is in direct proportion to the number of opportunities to do cool-ass shit that are presented during his minutes. But that’s of course not true—as pointed out by Brian Windhorst earlier this month, few players in the NBA are slower and more stationary than LeBron, in no small part because 33-year-old LeBron is judicious about how and when he expends his energy:
During the regular season, James’ average speed during games was 3.85 mph, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
Of all players who averaged at least 20 minutes a game, that ranked in the bottom 10 in speed.
And since the playoffs started, James has gotten even slower. His average has slipped to 3.69 mph.
Here’s why: James walks a lot. During the regular season, about 74.4 percent of James’ time on the court was spent walking. Again, this was in the top 10 in the league. Almost no one walked up and down the floor more than James. And in the playoffs, he’s walking even more — 78.7 percent of the time.
Against, say, the Wizards, or the Raptors, LeBron can decide to play like the world’s most skilled big man, and slow the game to a crawl, and still completely undress the opposing defense. Sometimes, depending upon match-ups, the Cavs might even be at their best when LeBron just demands the rock wherever he thinks he has the greatest one-on-one advantage, so he can mercilessly cook some poor sucker. At the other end, LeBron’s habit of forsaking transition defense and taking defensive possessions off was a not-insignificant factor in Cleveland’s horrific regular season defense. Mostly this stuff doesn’t sink the Cavs—mostly the cool shit LeBron does in his full-go possessions more than makes up the difference—and so the fact that LeBron is an uncommonly stationary basketball player mostly goes unnoticed.
But stationary-ass LeBron and his plucky band of spectating-ass teammates got roundly pantsed in two games in Boston, and whatever rotation adjustments Ty Lue might concoct—they finally found some use for Larry Nance Jr.!—would pale as difference-makers compared to a more fully activated LeBron. The Celtics are too organized defensively, and have too many sturdy and ferocious individual defenders, and are too sharp in their defensive rotations for the Cavs to just stand around while LeBron...also stands around, but with the ball in his hands. They need to make Boston’s defenders move and pivot and rotate, force them to make quick decisions, and then force them to string quick decisions together; stone their well-meaning goobers in the paint and then race the other way in transition, before Boston can set up their mean-as-hell half-court defense. This will not be the series where LeBron can take possessions off, at either end.
LeBron’s activity doesn’t fully explain what happened in Game 3. The Cavs went a scorching 17-for-34 from beyond the arc, and George Hill and J.R. Smith finally played like rotation-grade NBA players, and the Celtics offense was, for the most part, putrid junk. It’s worth pointing out that this Eastern Conference Finals series is being contested between a team with the 29th-ranked regular season defense and a team with the 18th-ranked regular season offense, and the latter team is missing its best and most dynamic offensive player. Whatever else happens, if the Cavs play even average defense in the rest of this series they will be in very good shape to advance. But LeBron’s activity Saturday night, especially in the first half, seemed to genuinely discombobulate the young Celtics, to the point where the Cavs spent the final 46 minutes of the game playing in an ecstatic can’t-miss zone of total offensive freedom.
It’s the margin, more than the win itself, that gives you hope that this might turn out to be a competitive series after all. A squeaker, in a must-win scenario like this, would be the kind of thing where you’d expect Brad Stevens to unlock a couple thoughtful adjustments before Monday, little things that could close up whatever vulnerabilities the Cavs exploited in a narrow win. But the standard rules of stopping these Cavs go out the window when LeBron’s darting around off the ball, erasing gimme buckets at one end and soaring into a few extra ones at the other, when he has to be watched by multiple sets of eyes on every possession, at both ends. The pressure was much more than the Celtics could bear Saturday night, and reversing it will be as much about timely adjustments as it will be about hoping, desperately, that LeBron won’t be able to sustain it for another few games.