Kyrie Irving has a way with challenges. Most every drive he makes is flanked by towering help. The modern NBA has made the lane a dense place. No matter how much a team spreads the floor, there are generally a few extra defenders with a foot in the paint. Where there isn’t a wound-up rim protector, there is some other restrictive wingspan boxing in Irving the deeper he goes. And the closer Irving gets to the rim, the more pronounced his size disadvantage becomes. So once he slinks into quarters too close to break ankles, Irving uses every tactic available to him to clear slivers of daylight. A slight shoulder bump. A jump off the wrong foot. A shielding off-arm, rarely extended. A double clutch. Irving might be better at clearing space than any guard in the league (though the injured Isaiah Thomas could give him a run) and yet he keeps his aim—even as he loses his balance.
Working those angles at 6'3" is hard. The difficulty is self-evident whenever Irving leans to bank in a runner while losing his footing. All of which makes Irving’s scoring explosions—like when he went 9-for-10 for 21 points in the third quarter of Game 4, sprained ankle and all—so clearly extraordinary.
The same isn't so for LeBron James. Amid the thrills of Irving’s creativity, James logged one of the quietest 34-point outings in playoff history. This is the other side of a fully dominant LeBron: An alternate version that makes mistakes (careless fouls, forced plays, indifferent jumpers), trudges on, and still winds up putting together a massive performance. James didn’t have any stretch so persistently masterful as Irving’s third quarter, but he wound up scoring the same amount (24 points) in the second half all the same.
The curse of LeBron is that it all looks so easy. Defenses tend to fall apart when James is around; his presence alone inspires opponents to abandon principle. Get him a deep catch off a quick cut and a mismatched defender like Avery Bradley has almost no choice but to gamble. What else is there to do against a much taller player in an entirely different weight class?
Often, a single off-ball screen is all it takes—the smaller the screener the better. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Cavs entered the ball to Kevin Love in the post only to run Deron Williams toward LeBron for a quick, snug screen on the opposite block. Crowder gets bumped out of the play as LeBron slices toward the rim.
In Crowder’s defense: this little maneuver is almost impossible to defend in a two-on-two setting. Marcus Smart encroaches in from the top of the floor but not enough to make any difference. Jaylen Brown is left to tend to Kyle Korver half the court away. Al Horford can’t turn his attention from Love until it’s too late. It’s a smart setup that could put any cutter into good position. What separates LeBron is that at the point when he catches Love’s pass with momentum toward the basket in the mid-paint, the play is as good as over. Crowder swoops back in to contest—making contact with James in mid-air—but the deed is done.
All of this transpires casually in the background of Tyronn Lue’s sideline interview. It’s an important basket—stretching a seven-point lead to nine in a game that was within single digits for most of the fourth quarter. To start his next score, James would catch the ball under the Cavs’ own basket with four Celtics ahead of him on the floor. He crossed midcourt at a canter, pulling his defender (Crowder) up to the three-point line. Crowder is a good defender down in his stance and yet he is hopeless; all it takes for LeBron to push through is a turn of his shoulder and timely acceleration. With how quickly Crowder’s coverage dissolved, all Horford can do is goaltend the ensuing layup.
Those are two points that James refined from the most nondescript raw materials. He could have walked the ball up to get Cleveland into their offense. It’s not as if the Celtics were overextended or even poorly balanced; they had four defenders in frame to defend two Cavs, one of whom was James. The failure to contain feels less like failure and more like fate. Once LeBron decides he wants to run, getting in his way and hoping for the best is about as well as it goes.
Is any of this spectacular? It lacks the inherent drama of a fadeaway jumper or, for that matter, Irving’s forays into the paint. Yet it was these kinds of plays from James that brought the Cavs home, sealing up their fourth-quarter lead so that it could be air-tight. This might have been the sloppiest performances of LeBron’s playoff run. His first half was far too polar in the way he settled for shots he shouldn’t and tried to force things he normally doesn’t. Still, he ended up scoring 34 points on 15-of-27 shooting while partially offsetting his five turnovers with a team-high six assists. The proof of LeBron’s greatness, it seems, may lie in his lesser works.