James’s supporting cast will tell the tale
WALTHAM — It wasn’t LeBron James’s 38 points Friday that were the difference in Cleveland’s Game 3 victory over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. That type of production was expected from a two-time MVP as a response to his lackluster effort in Game 2.
What burned the Celtics was James’s associates, who fed off their leader and delivered the support that hadn’t been present the first two games. Antawn Jamison finally got the better of Kevin Garnett with a double-double.
Delonte West was unstoppable from midrange and staved off a couple of apparent Celtics first-half rallies with crowd-quieting jumpers, while Shaquille O’Neal, at least for one night, resembled the Diesel and scored 8 points with 5 rebounds in just 14 first-half minutes.
It was truly a team effort for the Cavaliers, and the Celtics spent yesterday at their practice facility realizing they have to place more emphasis on containing LeBron’s teammates and not necessarily LeBron.
James dropped 35 points in Game 1 but it was the Celtics’ inability to stop Mo Williams that cost them a victory. James tallied 24 in Game 2, but the Celtics prevailed because he didn’t receive any help, prompting coach Mike Brown to call out Williams and O’Neal for their disappearing acts.
They responded Friday, and the Celtics watched helplessly as the rest of the Cavaliers went 30 for 52 from the field (57.6 percent) with 37 rebounds and 18 assists. They were confident and fearless. The Celtics, so focused on LeBron and far back on their heels, allowed his complements to flourish.
It all started with LeBron’s 21-point first-quarter statement. He was unstoppable and, more important, his bravado spread to his teammates. The Cavaliers are more than a one-man team, and they are a beast when LeBron gets help.
The Celtics don’t mind if he scores 45 points and the rest of his team remains passive. Boston was content to allow Dwyane Wade to go off in the opening series, but no other Heat player made an impact, and they were disposed of in five games.
“He has a cape, no doubt about that,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of James. “And a lot of guys play through his cape. But that’s with every great player. You name a great player, especially the Kobes, the LeBrons of the world, when they get it going, they make you feel pretty much like Hercules as well, and that’s what he does and that’s what he should do.
“Like I told our guys, LeBron did his job [Friday] night. He did what he was supposed to do. We’re going to have to win a game in this series — and I’ve said it before — where LeBron’s going to have 40, and we’re still going to have to win. We’re going to have to deal with that.’’
Defense will be the reason the Celtics remain competitive in this series. They have to find a way to make the Cavaliers uncomfortable in the early going. Jamison, for example, beat Garnett to rebounds and reached the free throw line four times in the first quarter.
The Celtics spent the first half so aware — and in awe at times — of James that they slipped on their team defense.
“I think it all started with LeBron,’’ Kendrick Perkins said. “He came out in the first quarter and he set the tone for the whole game. Their whole team feeds off LeBron, in my opinion.
“He came out and had 21 in the first quarter, knocking his jumper down, his confidence was high, his swagger was high, and all of the rest of those guys feed off of him. If LeBron don’t do that, then the game pretty much could go either way.’’
So the Celtics’ focus shifts to being more of the aggressor, and forcing the Cavaliers to worry about playing defense instead of finding their sweet spots for favorable shots. The primary issue Friday was that Cleveland felt more comfortable in Boston than the Celtics did. After three days of hearing how flawed they were, the Cavaliers used LeBron to make a statement, and the rest of his teammates drove it home.
“Being on the road, mind-sets change, personnel change,’’ James said. “I think you can afford, saying myself can afford, to play the back role a little bit at home.
“Guys are more confident at home. On the road, you can’t do that as much because honestly it’s just you and your teammates. So it started with me [Friday] and then everyone seen my aggression and just took advantage of it.’’
Yes, one man can possess that much power, but that power can be tempered with more emphasis on those who benefit from it. LeBron James is such an imposing and intimidating figure that it’s understandable to ignore his supporting cast, but the Celtics have to use strong defense and aggression to make the game easier. It’s their only chance to win today.
“We score off our defense, off getting stops, and if you are going to take the ball out [of bounds] every time, you’re not scoring in the playoffs,’’ Rivers said. “You gotta get stops. We gotta make them miss shots.
“I don’t think we had a lot of pressure on them. I thought they had us on our heels the entire game, so we have to get back up into them.’’