By J.M. Poulard
Once upon a time, people took photos with a camera apparatus, sent the film to a store, waited for it to be developed and then picked up the pictures for viewing pleasure. That process has since been replaced by the existence of camera phones, which have made it incredibly easier and more efficient in terms of instant gratification, to the point that few actually take the time to truly appreciate the evolution.
The same can be said about LeBron James, who has successfully reinvented himself numerous times in an exercise meant to help prolong his prime and remain relevant with the times. The 2017 postseason version of James opened the Eastern Conference Finals by leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 117-104 Game 1 road victory over the Boston Celtics.
James has long been considered one of the game’s most powerful and physical specimens, and those characteristics were certainly on display Wednesday night, along with his brilliant mind.
When LeBron is on the floor, there is no way to hide a weak link. The four-time MVP hunts mismatches down and exploits them to embarrassing degrees and has even stated as much.
“I pretty much know how many guys I’m going to see throughout the course of a game. I know the guy that’s going to start on me. I know the guy that’s going to shift off onto me if a sub happens or if they go small or if they go big,” James said, per the Akron Beacon Journal’s Marla Ridenour. “For me, the only thing on my mind is how we can execute the best way we can and get a bucket in this possession, either if I can get myself a shot or if I can drive, get my shooters a shot, or if I can get a double-team in the paint or get to the free throw line. It’s not an individual matchup for me, no matter who’s in front of me. My mind is always racing on how I can make this the best possession at that particular time.”
Lo and behold, watch below as James forces Kelly Olynyk to switch onto him and what happens next:
If it works once, why not try it again right? Far too often, teams outsmart themselves by going away from what works before forcing the opposition to adjust. Older and wiser LeBron is quite the opposite; he will force a play down the throat of the opponent until it solves it. Thus, no surprise here, the Akron native asked Olynyk to dance again:
LeBron turned his back on Kelly Olynyk while he defended him 😂 pic.twitter.com/OTckrxwmWg
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2017
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was stuck in an impossible predicament when trying to determine if he should commit an extra defender to arguably the best passing forward of all time, or simply watch his big men get torched over and over again.
It’s a riddle that Stevens failed to solve in Game 1 as evidenced by James’ 38 points (14-for-24 shooting) and seven assists. Noted Boston super fan Bill Simmons essentially predicted this outcome when previewing a prospective battle between the Cavs and Celtics over at The Ringer:
“Throw your best defender at him and he waves over a screener, gets the switch he wants, and torches the new guy. Double him and he finds an open shooter. Shade defenders toward the paint and he finds a teammate open by 1/100th of a foot. Stay home on the shooters and he scores himself. How do you stop the queen of the chessboard when he’s working with a bigger board?”
Simmons is hardly alone in his appreciation of James’ all-world abilities. Following the game, the Boston coach seemed just as miffed and intrigued by LeBron’s progression.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got in the league,” said Stevens, now in his fourth year in the NBA. “A lot better. … I didn’t think he could get any better after that.”
For all the talk about his talent, James’ strengths do not only rest in his ability as a player. He also possesses the power of influence among his teammates, and that has gone a long way into turning the Cavaliers into a championship team seeking to repeat.
Indeed, Cleveland has adopted the attitude of the Chosen One, and that was very apparent in the second quarter when a bench-heavy unit played with Kevin Love and featured his skill set. Picking up on LeBron’s tactics, the Cavs got Love matched up against a guard.
Guess how that one turned out…
Once Cleveland understood that the set they ran produced a Smart-versus-Love battle, the team called for it again to recreate that advantage:
Cleveland made the early commitment to create and attack favorable situations, and it helped them score 52 points in the paint. Love (32 points on 9-for-16 shooting) was a big part of that mind set, and Boston will have to figure out how to limit his production moving forward.
Granted, it’s not a decision absent consequences.
Shading Love with an extra defender will produce wider driving lanes for a scoring dynamo like Kyrie Irving, who was fairly quiet (11 points) by his own standards in Game 1.
Still, Stevens will have to re-think his approach in terms of defending the Cavs after trailing by double digits – at one point by 28 – throughout the majority of the contest.
It is worth noting that the Celtics’ effort can and should be better in Game 2. They appeared tired and emotionally drained from their seven-game series with the Washington Wizards, and that might have played a part in Boston losing the battle on the boards, turnovers and loose balls.
The home team did get a jolt of energy late in the third quarter when Smart and Tristan Thompson had a bit of a back and forth stemming from a Smart box out. Tempers flared and the home team’s physicality increased. If that carries into next game, the Celtics should play with more aggression and perhaps even up the series.
Then again, they will still have that guy to deal with, and he’s pretty much seen it all. And yet, he continues to reinvent himself.