It doesn’t seem hard to play with LeBron James: hit your open threes, play smart on both sides, and give him the damn ball. Why are his teammates making this so hard?
That’s an oversimplification, sure. But Cleveland’s Game 3 loss can be almost solely attributed to the poor play of everyone but James in the second half, where Indiana overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to beat the Cavaliers 92-90 and go ahead two games to one in the first round series. It’s the first time that James has ever trailed in an opening round series.
James wasn’t perfect, but he shouldn’t have to score 46 points every game to beat a first round opponent, like he did in Game 2, another shot that came down to a final possession. On Friday, James scored 28 points on 10-of-22 shooting, pulled down 12 rebounds, dished eight assists, and played 42 minutes. It wasn’t enough.
The second half shouldn’t have been that hard, not when starting it up 17. From 9:17 left in the fourth to 7.7 seconds remaining, only James scored for Cleveland. Non-James players shot 8-of-26 in that second half, and they committed seven turnovers. Cleveland scored just 33 points during that stretch.
Shouldn’t James just do more?
James purposefully deferred to his teammates in Game 1, trying to get them going for the long postseason that lie ahead of them. The result was an embarrassing blowout in the opening game, and head coach Tyronn Lue saying James had to be more aggressive.
That 46-point game came in Game 2, and yes, it was incredible. But James can’t realistically be asked to do that every night. He barely missed jumpers all night, and those same shots caught up to him on Friday, when he missed all six two-pointers taken outside the paint.
Why were his teammates so bad?
Kevin Love had a promising first half — 6-of-11 shooting for 12 points — only to be completely derailed in the second. In the final two quarters, Love took two shots, hit one, and finished with three pointers. That one shot was a desperation three late, too.
Love’s total mismanagement in Cleveland is a bigger problem than just this series, even though he had his best statistical year yet this season. It’s baffling that the Cavaliers don’t run offense through him at the elbow, and it’s silly they instead keep cramming it to him in the post against a sensational post defender like Thaddeus Young, who has snuffed out any attempts to score at an efficient rate. Without those two options, Love’s options are to spot-up and crash the glass, and just like that Cleveland’s second-best player becomes a glorified role player.
Even watching his first half highlights, you can see that pretty much all his points come thanks to James or from poor Indiana defense. What James needs is another shot creator, and Love certainly isn’t doing that.
Past him, Cleveland’s entire roster has flaws. Kyle Korver was toasted on defense, and he missed all three triples, too. Rodney Hood is an inconsistent shot creator who has taken no strides since joining the Cavaliers. Jose Calderon is too slow and too old. J.R. Smith is not nearly the player he used to be. Larry Nance has struggled all series to do enough ‘little things’, and his minutes paired with Jeff Green are especially bad, since it leads to a complete lack of spacing. Here’s one play where James does the right thing, and Green’s unwillingness to shoot (and unlikeliness to hit said shot even if he did) kills an entire possession.
Just look at this. LeBron makes the absolutely correct pass and who is on the receiving end but Jeff Green. Turns an offensive advantage into a reset that translates into a terrible Hood 3PA pic.twitter.com/35hAxYnI2F— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) April 21, 2018
There’s also George Hill, nominally Cleveland’s third best player, who also started strong (nine first half points) and only attempted two shots in the second. I’m not sure the Cavaliers understand that Hill in their third-best player, because they certainly don’t treat him as such. Also, that Hill is clearly their third-best player kind of sums up the problem that this roster has, doesn’t it?
There will probably be a game in this series where all of Cleveland’s role players all heat up at once. It’ll help, and the Cavaliers will likely win that game, but the overall lack of talent on this roster outside of James has clearly already been exposed.
Isn’t this the team James wanted?
This always gets brought up on Twitter. There’s no question that James has more influence in the front office than perhaps any other player in the league, but the idea that he runs the Cavaliers is massively overblown. The team James wanted likely involved Irving still on the roster and someone like Paul George or Jimmy Butler on the wings. There’s no doubt that this current rendition of Cleveland’s team is the least talented one since his pre-Miami days.
Could James have done more to convince Irving to stay last summer? He might could have, but it’s not like he personally chased him out of town. And certainly, it wasn’t his fault that the eventual deal made for Isaiah Thomas combusted so robustly.
So this really isn’t on James?
It does seem like we end up in this position every year, blaming James’ teammates for his playoff failures. But hey, James has consistently taken inferior rosters and turned them into workable teams. His rosters have never been this bad, but they have paled in comparison to teams like the Golden State Warriors.
I believe there’s a level that James can hit that’s good enough to win this series even with minimal contributions from his teammates, but how far will that get them? If Cleveland limps through the first round in six or seven games, who’s picking them against the Toronto Raptors (presumably) next round?
James has done a thousand things that we never would have guessed were possible on the basketball court, but he has not learned how to become his own teammate. Barring that, this Cleveland Cavaliers team is in enormous trouble.