BOSTON — It was after Game 1 and Brad Stevens was asked to consider the impossible quandary that is LeBron James. It had been a ruthlessly efficient night for LeBron, who had 38 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and there wasn’t a damn thing the Celtics could do about any of it.
“He made it clear,” Stevens said simply. “It was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him.”
This is the issue the Celtics, and everyone else, has against LeBron. They don’t want to double him because he’ll pick them apart with passes to his cadre of shooters. They don’t want to get caught in a scramble game because that leaves openings for offensive rebounders crashing the glass. So, the one-on-one approach it was, and the only saving grace for the Celtics was that James missed five of his six 3-point attempts.
“This is a perfect roster with regard to how many predicaments they can put you in with all the shooting around him,” Stevens had said before the game.
LeBron brushed off his night (“It’s not an individual match-up for me, no matter who’s in front of me”) while suggesting that the Cavs didn’t play up to their standards. Before Thursday’s off-day practice, James doubled down saying he didn’t feel all that well and that he’d be “much better” in Game 2.
James had 30 points on Friday and shot 12-of-18 from the floor while making four of his six 3-pointers. He had seven assists, three blocks, four steals and was a plus-46 (!) in less than 33 minutes of action. One can argue that LeBron’s Game 2 was better than his Game 1, but that’s not really the point. Better than what: Our standards or his?
That leads back to another Game 1 comment from Stevens that warrants further inspection.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got into the league,” Stevens said. “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.”
That’s a heavy statement considering that LeBron was thought to be at his peak when Stevens came into the league. James was coming off a run of four MVP awards in five years and two straight championships punctuated by a pair of Finals MVPs. His 2013 season was viewed by many as the absolute apex of his career.
One might think he’d never reach those heights again and so over the last four seasons, James has settled into a new space that exists solely for him. He is the best player in the league with, or without, the official hardware. While just about everyone acknowledges LeBron’s designation, others have been rewarded for their excellent individual seasons.
Kevin Durant and Steph Curry have won MVPs and it’s likely that either Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win it this season. It’s also been suggested that Kawhi Leonard is now the best two-way player in the league, although the postseason has opened that one up again. (That’s through no fault of Leonard’s play, which has been fantastic when healthy.)
The MVP is a regular season award, after all, and it wasn’t a huge surprise that those three were named finalists for the award before Game 2, while James was not. Therein lies a riddle: Is the Most Valuable Player the one who is most valuable to their team or the one who is most valuable to the league?
“No, I didn’t see it,” James said afterward, downplaying the motivation angle. “And what are you going to do about it at the end of the day? My only job is to try to be the MVP for this team every night, put my teammates, put our franchise in position to be successful and ultimately compete for a championship. For me, I know what I bring to the table. This league knows what I bring to the table.”
That they do and we should start with the notion that James is not the same player he was four years ago. While always cerebral and intelligent, he seems to have elevated his mental approach to a plane of transcendental peace. As he said earlier in the postseason, what does he have left to prove?
LeBron can still destroy everything in his path, but he takes delight in not only winning, but winning his way; where everyone is involved and the team rides his wave alongside him. Consider his mesmerizing passing ability and his desire to find open looks for and opportunities for not only Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but also Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson.
Individually, LeBron has become a machine. His ability to pace himself through heavy playoff minutes is becoming legendary. His shooting has stabilized after a notably down season last year, and as 538’s Chris Herring pointed out, James is an efficiency monster when he drives to the basket. He doesn’t have to guard the best player every night anymore, but his defensive presence is everywhere.
His teammates also rave about his leadership abilities. His example is the one they follow, whether it’s a late-night film session after the plane arrives in a visiting town or an off-day practice to stay sharp amid long periods of inactivity.
“What he does is he just breeds confidence in everybody,” Korver said. “You know he’s going to make the right play. You know he can always take over a game on both ends of the floor. It’s nice to be figuring out how to play off him instead of worrying about how to gameplan for him. It’s a whole different thought process.”
Korver knows from experience, having been on the losing end of countless postseason battles with James from his days with Chicago and Atlanta. So, how would he gameplan for LeBron? Korver laughed. “It’s tough,” was all he’d say.
The LeBron that we’re seeing in the postseason has been spectacular and efficient, while maintaining an edge that lets everyone in the building know that he’s not going to lay down for an acceptable loss. He led a 26-point rally on the road against the Pacers and demoralized the Raptors in Toronto during the second round. The first two games in Boston have produced staggering blowouts.
The Cavs may have been listless down the stretch, but it’s obvious now that they were biding their time for the postseason. So much for the importance of home court advantage, or for that matter, the importance of the regular season. LeBron is beyond such mundane matters.
What we’re seeing is a new chapter in our continuing effort to understand this generational player in real time. He’s different, for sure, but is he better than 2013, a season that will be held up in years to come as one of LeBron’s defining campaigns?
“Yeah, he’s better,” his longtime teammate James Jones said. “In every way. He’s a better shooter. He’s a better communicator. Better passer. He’s peaking. He’s in his prime and usually that’s the result of continual and gradual improvement.”
Jones would know. He’s been with LeBron since their Miami days, a run that has lasted seven years and included four MVPs, three championships, and countless reinterpretations of the most fascinating player in basketball. I pointed out the common perception that LeBron peaked four years ago. Jones nodded and continued.
“Statistically, but you can’t measure everything he does in statistics,” he said. “That’s kind of been the problem with LeBron since Day 1. It always comes back to numbers for him, but at this point because those numbers are a given, you expect him to put those numbers up. Now people are paying attention to how he’s doing it.”
Jones noted that you if you watch closely enough you can see LeBron’s genius at work during the course of games. How he probes and investigates, how he sees things before everyone else does, how he counters and adjusts. LeBron has his hand in everything and is all things at all times.
“When you look at it now,” Jones said, “it starts to look effortless.”
We are left, then, with the notion that LeBron has become sui generis, a player incapable of comparison or even competition within his era. He has been beaten, yes, but he has rarely been bowed.
He has outlasted his elders, maintained his level beyond his peers, and his closest rivals now span generations. In a historical context, he is chasing no less a figure than Michael Jordan, although that full accounting must wait for a later day. It all starts to get a little overwhelming.
“The best way to do it is to compare LeBron versus himself,” Jones said. “Every player is unique. Every player is different. Every player, especially the great ones like Mike, like Larry, they redefine their position. They redefine what you thought a prototypical 2-guard, small forward was.
“Bron is Bron,” Jones continued. “He’s changed the game as far what you’d expect from a wing, or a small forward. Now he’s in that territory where you really can’t define him by position. Right now when you look at him, all you can say he’s the best player in the world.”
In the aftermath of Game 2’s brutal onslaught, the same phrase was uttered by league executive and longtime league observers: No one has ever seen anything like it. Nobody has. There is LeBron and there is everyone else.
Now that the lottery is behind us, here are five takeaways from what was a fairly predictable event.
The Celtics’ future looks clearer
With the top choice in this year’s draft the Celtics will likely take Markelle Fultz, a shape-shifting lead guard from Washington. And with that choice, the Celtics will become a team organically building toward the future while maintaining the core of a 50-win team that hosted Game 1 of the conference finals. What they will try to do is shoot the moon between having a good team at the moment and a potentially great one in the near future. It will be tricky and there are many contractual landmines they’ll need to navigate, but this now seems like the chosen path.
The summer of Lonzo is upon us
After much drama and internet-fueled controversy, the Lakers will select Lonzo Ball with the second pick. The Balls will get what they want, the Lakers will get a new face of the franchise, and the Fultz-Ball rivalry will be fantastic. This is the only way this can end, but it will not go quietly. The Lakers will have to figure out what they want to do with D’Angelo Russell and the world must decide what to make of LaVar Ball. We will bathe ourselves in the glowing light of thousands of pageviews until draft day and beyond.
Sam Hinkie da Gawd
God bless Sixers’ fans for they are the best. While we’ve all made fun of their Sam Hinkie deification from time to time, the Philly faithful do not care for your cynicism and they will not stand for nonbelievers. No, those lovable bastards will raise a banner for their man and toast the genius behind the heist that allowed them to move up two whole spots in the draft. A more beautiful lottery moment you could not hope to find. (It really was an unbelievable swindle.)
The Kings did OK
While it was mildly amusing that the Kings had to swap from the third to the fifth pick (Hinkie!), the Kings still scored a top-five pick to go along with the 10th choice from the Pelicans via the Boogie Cousins trade. That’s not a terrible place for Scott Perry and Vlade Divac to get to work, and man, do they have a lot of work to do. Perry and Divac need to nail these picks because their 2019 choice is already routed to Philly. (Hinkie!)
The Suns came into the night with the second-best lottery odds and wound up with the fourth choice. The guard-heavy Suns will be in play for a forward like Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, or Jonathan Isaac to bolster a young roster with a couple of bright spots. Still, the Suns could use some good fortune at the moment because while there are a number of bright prospects on hand (Devin Booker, most prominently), they are also far from competitive. Ryan McDonough’s long game may look really good in a few years if he has the time to see it through.
As James Jones noted, statistics alone cannot fully capture LeBron James’ game. But they do tell a significant tale and we start here with the most impactful play in basketball. In 2013, LeBron had a career high 144 dunks and our mental images flash back to Miami’s aerial transition ballet. James did that one better this season, with 145 dunks. Yes, there are still the open-court flights, but James is also finishing with authority at the rim. It’s indicative of a player who has not so much maintained his athleticism, as refined it.
Here’s a random all-in-one box score measure. In 2013, LeBron recorded 17.9 rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game. This year, he’s up to 19.1 with career highs in rebounds and assists. In various lineup configurations, LeBron can be anything from a lead guard to a wing to a big. He affects the game from so many different areas on the court and gives Cleveland what it needs in all the various categories.
Moving to the postseason, LeBron has been dominating around the basket, averaging 16.7 points per game in the painted area. That’s way up from 11.4 points per game during the 2013 playoffs. If you recall, that run culminated in the Finals when Gregg Popovich’s defense was designed specifically to keep him out of the lane. James had figured it out by Game 7 with a masterful mid-range performance. It’s telling that as he’s aged, LeBron has become more ruthless in how he attacks defenses.
Speaking of ruthlessness … Before this season, LeBron’s longest playoff winning streak was five games. He’s won all 10 this postseason (the streak is actually 13 if you go back to last year’s Finals), and given no indication that he’s letting up anytime soon. That’s manifested itself most prominently on the road where he hasn’t given his opponents a break. If anyone thought the Cavs were vulnerable before the playoffs started, they don’t anymore.
After his latest 30-point effort in Game 2 of the conference finals, LeBron has now reached that mark in eight straight playoff games. That ties Michael Jordan for the longest-streak in NBA history and puts him beyond the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Karl Malone. LeBron has always held his own with the purest of pure scorers, but the points are a mere reflection of his night and don’t often tell the full tale. As Jones said, the numbers are a given.