- LeBron James was dominant in Wednesday's road win over the Celtics to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the East for the Cavaliers.
For a stretch of the second quarter during the Cavaliers’ 114–91 blowout of the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, LeBron James entered a plane of sheer dominance that quickly reminded everyone even remotely associated with basketball who the best player in the world is. James simply had his way with Boston defenders, bullying smaller players on the block and relentlessly attacking the rim for easy buckets, all while playing free safety on defense and wreaking havoc on an Isaiah Thomas-less lineup. It was a stark reminder that Boston has no answer for the man who controls the Eastern Conference.
Of course, the same could be said of every team in the league when James decides to play on God Mode. Boston allegedly had a chance to acquire Paul George or Jimmy Butler at the trade deadline, and you have to wonder if on Wednesday the Celtics slightly regretted not pulling the trigger on such a move, particularly after George’s performance against James earlier this week. The Celtics are still a very talented team seemingly on a collision course to face the Cavs in the conference finals, but they blew a golden opportunity Wednesday night.
For all of James’s posturing about the regular season leading into this game, he certainly played with a playoff-level intensity against Boston. The matchup carried huge significance in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East, and Cleveland is now in the driver’s seat after earning the tiebreaker with the win. The Celtics were primed to play spoiler, playing on their home floor against a Cavaliers team playing their third game in four nights as well as on the second night of a back-to-back. None of those factors mattered when LeBron decided to take over.
James was helped by a hot start from Kevin Love, as well as timely contributions from Cleveland’s role players. Channing Frye should particularly be commended for filling in for Tristan Thompson, who missed his first game in over five years.
The problem for Boston was the same as it has been all season: The Celtics struggle to score without Isaiah Thomas. The Celts’ leading scorer was off the court when James went on his second-quarter rage, and that stretch more or less decided the game. Compounding the issue was the struggles of Boston’s youthful players. Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown all had some rough moments on the court, and it’s fair to wonder how those guys will react to the pressure of a late-round playoff series. Boston has had some good moments against Cleveland this season, but in this high stakes matchup, the shaky performances were troubling.
Cleveland’s much-maligned defense also held up on Wednesday, though the Cavs can’t count on Boston missing so many open threes in a seven-game series. Tyronn Lue still kept the nuclear option in his pocket, opting not to use James on Thomas for an extended stretch on defense. Thomas’s fourth quarter heroics weren’t a factor Wednesday, but in the postseason, using James as a stopper could be a serious wild card.
Conclusions drawn from regular season games can often mean little in the playoffs. (Remember when the Nets used to own LeBron’s Heat?) But the Celtics could use homecourt advantage much more than the Cavs, whose last playoff win was on the road against the winningest regular season team in NBA history. Boston doesn’t have such plaudits to fall back on, and in their best chance to make a statement win, the Celtics put up a dud.
Finding an answer for LeBron James will always be easier said than done. For Boston, Wednesday wasn’t about second guessing past moves or non-moves. But for a team with Finals aspirations, the Celtics came up woefully short despite having the deck stacked in their favor. The Cavs have their own issues if they actually hope to be champions. Boston showed Wednesday they still have major hurdles to clear if they hope to be in the conversation.