By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s rare to see LeBron James as ineffective as he was in Sunday’s Game 1 beatdown at the hands of the Celtics.
The Cavaliers? Sure. They had an initial sugar-high following their trade deadline shake-up, but this is the James Show as much as it was in 2010 when the Celtics made him quit his way all the way to Miami. He’s carrying this team like it features Eric Snow and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. They might even be ahead of Rodney Hood on the Cavs’ current depth chart, actually. It’s no secret that if they’re going to advance beyond this third round and represent the Eastern Conference on basketball’s biggest stage for the fourth straight year, it’s going to be with James dragging them there kicking and screaming.
But LeBron looking as bad as he did in Game 1? It’s borderline unheard of.
With makes on just 5-of-16 attempts in Cleveland’s 108-83 loss, LeBron finished Game 1 with a 31.3 field goal percentage. That percentage stands as the ninth-worst single-game mark of his his 229-game playoff career. (How ridiculous is it that this guy has now hit the point where he’s played about three seasons of just playoff basketball?) Cavaliers head coach Ty Lue did not hide away from the fact that LeBron had a rough day, and even said as much the day after.
And with a potential 0-2 series deficit heading back to Cleveland staring the Cavs in the face if a similarly woeful effort comes in tonight’s Game 2 at TD Garden, LeBron’s teammates are expecting something special from No. 23.
“I mean, usually when LeBron has these kind of games, the next game he does something legendary,” Tristan Thompson, expected to get bumped into the starting five in Game 2, said on Monday.
And perhaps it’s in our best interest if we assume the same.
Begin with the obvious point: Thompson is not wrong.
When the Cavs dropped Game 1 against the Pacers in the first round, James rebounded with a Game 2 effort with makes on 17 of 24 attempts for 46 points and 12 rebounds. In fact, in the three games immediately following a lost this postseason, the 6-foot-8 James is averaging 41 points, 11 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game. He’s shot 63.4 percent in these three games.
The Cavaliers have (obviously) won all three of those games.
But if we increase the sample size to the last three postseasons, James is averaging 33.3 points, 10 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, and shooting 57.6 percent from the field, in 12 games following a Cleveland playoff loss. James has posted five double-doubles and two triple-doubles in that 12-game sample, as well.
And most of all, Cleveland’s record is 8-4.
This isn’t just, ‘Oh, here comes LeBron with a bounce-back performance.’ Not even close. When forced to respond — especially early in a series — James legitimately takes a game over, and it can often be the start of the tipping point in a series. In fact, James is a perfect 5-0 in Eastern Conference series in his career when losing Game 1.
The numbers alone point towards a storm coming to Boston tonight.
And Lue is going to play chess with Brad Stevens in an effort to increase the odds of a James Show in Game 2, too.
The not-so-secretive plan to move center Tristan Thompson into the starting five is Lue’s attempt to essentially trick Stevens into inserting Aron Baynes into the starting lineup and move Marcus Morris to the bench. Morris, of course, is one of the only players in this league that has shown he can truly hang in one-on-one competition against James (only the Warriors’ Draymond Green has had more success) and did just that in Game 1 with help from a switch-heavy Boston defense.
“He’s a tough guy. He’s going to play hard and compete,” Lue said of Morris against James. “But they did a lot of switching so it wasn’t just Morris on him. I thought they did a good job of switching. When they got the mismatch in the post, they came from the baseline side and double-teamed him. [James] made the right play and the right pass; we just didn’t make shots.”
Exposure and film confirming what the C’s have done defensively, an attempted matchup game, and the odds of James not repeating the ninth-worst shooting performance of his career in Game 2 are all reasons for optimism if you’re Lue.
But the Celtics, for what it’s worth, are aware of what’s coming their way from James in Game 2.
“He’s definitely shown that he’s not the same player game to game in terms of he always steps it up,” Aron Baynes said. “He always finds another gear to go into. He always finds another level. That’s what makes him one of the greatest of all time.”
“I think any time that you have a great player, they’re going to watch it close and figure out what they can try to do better and everything else, and nobody has been better at making those adjustments over the course of time than him,” Stevens said of James. “He’s tremendously talented, but as you said, tremendously bright as well. He’ll be aggressive. That’s part of it.
“That’s the great challenge of having to play against a team like this and a player like him.”
“They’re going to be more aggressive. [LeBron]’s the head of the snake, so he’s definitely going to be that,” Baynes acknowledged. “It’s going to be a fun challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
A fun challenge, no doubt. Whether that’s fun had by James or the Celtics, however, remains to be seen.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.