By J.M. Poulard
The NBA ecosystem makes it such that it can be difficult for superstars to coexist on the same team. The competition for adulation, shots and credit can lead players to step on each others toes to the point that friction becomes inevitable.
Fair or not, many believe that this led to Kevin Durant’s defection from Oklahoma City in favor of the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps he grew tired of Russell Westbrook getting in the way of his march towards basketball immortality.
On the flip side, LeBron James did the opposite when he returned to Cleveland.
He hitched his wagon to Kyrie Irving and believed the point guard could help him chase the ghost of Michael Jordan. So far, James’ forward-thinking approach seems to be paying off.
Irving made the biggest shot in Cleveland Cavaliers history last season to help lead the team to a title, and he showed up again Tuesday night to rescue the Cavaliers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Boston Celtics pressed all the right buttons in the first half of Game 4, taking a 16-point lead, their biggest of the series, with James looking passive throughout most of the early portion of the contest.
LeBron stepped up his aggressiveness in the second quarter, but was sent to the bench after picking up his fourth foul.
Irving and company stemmed the tide and cut the deficit to 10 points at the half.
The Celtics had no idea what was about to happen.
The Cavaliers took the floor in the third quarter and got out of Kyrie’s way—LeBron included. It would have been natural for James to make an early attempt at imposing his will on the game after sitting out parts of the first half with foul trouble, but he instead took the quiet strength approach.
Watching from the sidelines gave him something that can occasionally elude superstars: perspective.
Irving was getting ready to torch Boston provided no one stood in his way and James deferred.
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Irving became the Human Torch and spit fire at a Celtics defense on his way to 21 points on 9-of-10 shooting in the third period. The craziest thing about Kyrie’s performance was it had nothing to do with X’s and O’s.
Have a look below, this is one of the most sophisticated plays Cleveland ran in the third:
The Cavs run a pick-and-roll in an effort to create an advantage. Once they obtain the switch—Avery Bradley on LeBron—the goal becomes to get the ball inside to James. However, because LeBron has four fouls, he has to be extra careful in the manner in which he posts up and asks for the ball. Because he’s tentative in his approach, Irving decides to attack Jae Crowder off the bounce and scores.
How do the Celtics counter on the ensuing half-court possession?
Once Kyrie gives the ball up, they try to prevent him from getting it back by playing ball denial defense. The problem with that is the player with the ball is LeBron, and he’s arguably the best passing forward ever:
And just like that, ball denials became a no go. The Celtics coaching staff rolled the dice and decided to play Irving straight up, in a decision that ultimately backfired.
It became fairly evident no one could stay in front of Irving, and that Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue could just feed him isolations and dare Boston to send help his way with the likes of Kyle Korver on the floor.
Once Irving concluded he was playing one-on-one basketball from his favorite spot on the court, Boston was in deep trouble.
The Cavaliers point guard dropped 21 of his career-high 42 points in that quarter and capped it off with this beauty:
Kyrie in his bag 🔥 pic.twitter.com/acKZRwI2uh
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 24, 2017
For all of his heroics, someone still needed to close out the fourth quarter and secure the win. Conventional wisdom would have one think that Irving would carry that mantle, despite spraining his ankle during the contest, but that delicate balance of coexistence between superstars became once again evident to those paying attention.
This time, Kyrie deferred to James.
LeBron seemed re-energized and no longer bothered by his fouls, which resulted in improved focus and a far more aggressive approach. An unshackled LeBron took the fight to Boston, despite all of the schemes Boston threw at him.
The Celtics tried to crowd him, play off him, switch pick-and-rolls and play him physical in the fourth, and none of the strategies worked. He worked the paint, made long and mid-range jumpers, passed out of the lane for an open trey and did this Jaylen Brown:
👑 schooling the rook pic.twitter.com/jYMUHfH2Kv
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 24, 2017
Oh and this to Jonas Jerebko:
James closed the final period with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, tallying 34 points, six assists and five rebounds for the game.
The duo of James and Irving produced 48 second-half points (24 apiece) to Boston’s 42. However, it was Irving’s performance that had everyone raving following the game, LeBron included.
“I’ve been saying he’s a special kid,” said James. “He’s a special talent. As the stakes get higher and higher, his game gets higher and higher, but it was nothing surprising for me. But he rose to the occasion, and he put the team on his back, and we definitely needed that effort from him.”
Irving was certainly exceptional in Game 4, but it’s worth pondering what prompted his heroics. After all, his impeccable scoring display was made all that more important and entertaining by the fact that Cleveland needed it in order to claw back and win.
Indeed, the Celtics played a great first half thanks crisp ball movement and great read-and-react actions. Also, Boston protected the boards like its life depended on it.
“I thought that we played, you know, as well as we’ve played maybe the entire playoffs in the first half,” said Boston head coach Brad Stevens. “We were really good defensively. Offensively, I thought we moved and cut and played together, and then for whatever reason, all those things became a little bit more difficult. But that’s what great teams do. They make it really hard on you.”
Indeed, it can be tough to continuously utilize the same tactics against a good a team given its ability to adjust and also force tough decisions. That’s what Cleveland did, and if the Celtics want to survive Game 5 at home, they will have to do the same.
One place to start is Al Horford.
No Cleveland player has been able to defend him on the interior, and he’s gotten loose at times from the perimeter. Thus, it’s incumbent upon Stevens to build upon an offense that is without Isaiah Thomas (for remainder of playoffs with hip injury) and run more stuff through Horford.
If he wears down, so be it, this might be Boston’s only hope given that’s Cleveland’s superstars are meshing and moving forward together…more than likely to the Finals.
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