The harsh reality for the Celtics, something they are likely not to overcome in this series, is they have no one to even offer resistance to LeBron James.
Jae Crowder stands the best chance, and he’s too small to guard James, and too slow to guard James. Imagine that. James, a physical behemoth, is both bigger and faster than Crowder, rendering the Celtics helpless in one-on-one coverage.
So it was no shock that James scored 38 points, his first seven field goals being layups, in Cleveland’s 117-104 romp in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night at TD Garden. James has submitted several notable playoff performances against the Celtics, and at age 32 he remains unstoppable, toying with the seven defenders Celtics coach Brad Stevens threw at him during a Cleveland’s wire-to-wire win.
“He made it very clear he was trying to get to the rim,” Stevens said. “No matter who was on him. It’s hard to believe but he’s better, a lot better than when I got into the league.”
James scored on an array of layups and floaters, and Kevin Love added 32 points, including going 6 for 9 from the 3-point line. And since the Celtics don’t have anyone physically capable of guarding either in the post, they are at a serious disadvantage in the series.
So Stevens offered his options during his postgame media session, but even his bright basketball mind couldn’t conjure a concrete solution.
“Well, obviously any time that you’ve got a matchup like that, your next choice is to double, right?” the coach said. “Doubling is really scary against these guys, but it may be necessary. The reason it’s scary is because [Kyle] Korver is not going to have the shooting night that he had [1 for 6] very often. They have [Kyrie] Irving standing out there. You can just go down the list. So that’s an issue for everybody that plays against them. The conundrum is do you double and risk giving up those easy step-in threes and the rebounds? Or do you try to stay at home and do the best you can and make them make a tough shot? It’s all easier said than done, but we’ve got to figure out our best avenue quickly.”
In his previous life with the Timberwolves, Love was a post player who punished defenders with his bulk. Now he has added the 3-pointer to his game, making him nearly impossible to defend when he is effective from the perimeter.
James, a four-time league MVP, uses his astute basketball IQ to drive to the basket against single coverage — as he often did on Wednesday — or drive against a double team and swing it to an open shooter at the 3-point line. That’s what makes the Cavaliers so effective. They have surrounded James with 3-point shooters, and then Tristan Thompson gobbles up any offensive rebounds.
So, the Celtics have an immediate quandary. Do they double James and pray that Love, Korver and Irving miss from beyond the arc? Or do they continue to single cover James and hope he misses at the rim? The latter plan failed miserably in Game 1 and earned some Celtics figurative broken ankles from trying to defend James’s shifty drives.
James was 14 for 24 from the floor but 13 for 17 from inside the paint, meaning he victimized the Celtics’ defense with easy baskets and then made the right pass to Love at the arc. It proved to be an insurmountable combination.
James and Love combined for 70 points, 21 rebounds, and attempted 20 free throws. James seems to enjoy his role as a facilitator, picking apart the Celtics’ defense like Tom Brady in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Falcons. He is an on-court maestro, which is something the Celtics have no response for.
“I pretty much know how many guys I’m going to see [defending me],” James said. “I know the guy that’s going to start on me. I know the guy that’s going to shift off on to me if a [substitution] happens. For me, the only thing on my mind is how we can execute the best way we can to get a bucket. If I can get myself a shot, if I can drive and get my shooters a shot. My mind is always racing on how I can give us the best possession.”
The Celtics were visibly embarrassed by their performance and their lack of energy to begin the game. James scored 23 of his points in the first half, wowing the crowd with his brilliant athleticism and spinning moves. The best player on the planet is playing that way, and the Celtics have less than 48 hours to curtail the Cleveland charge or the Cavaliers will be halfway to a sweep by Friday night.
Crowder, like Stevens, knows the problems, and he offered a solution.
“Obviously he’s a great scorer, and when he gets going downhill he just has to see bodies,” Crowder said. “I have to do a better job of being up to touch on him, being on the ball, making it tough for him. But he has to see bodies behind me. We have to do a better job of showing help early, then getting out and spreading out to the shooters so they won’t be a factor in the game. We’ll watch film and try to adjust to it and give him a different look, obviously. He got comfortable with what we were doing on the defensive end and he had his way.”