When Kevin Love ran into Boston’s Jayson Tatum early in the first quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals and suffered a concussion, Jeff Green stepped into the lineup and saved Cleveland’s season. After helping the Cavs stave off elimination at home, Green was simply sublime in Game 7 against the Celtics, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
A journeyman playing for his fifth team in four seasons, Green came to Cleveland on a bargain-basement one-year deal. His signing last summer was greeted with the shrugs and sighs befitting a player whose career has been marked by unmet expectations.
In no other universe can Green be the second-best player on a team that wins a Game 7 to reach the Finals, but in LeBron James’ orbit all things are possible. If it hasn’t been Green offering James support and secondary scoring, it’s been Kyle Korver, Tristan Thompson, or George Hill. Occasionally it’s J.R. Smith. Other times it’s been Love.
It doesn’t really matter who it is on any given night, nor does James need much help. He’s the team’s leading scorer, second-leading rebounder, and primary playmaker while playing 40-plus minutes every night. The job of the other Cavs is to play defense and make shots. Those shots are typically the result of passes from LeBron, who is the focal point of nearly every offensive set.
It sounds easy, but it’s not always that simple. The Cavs cycled through 22 players this season, including four new arrivals at the trade deadline. Players such as Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas struggled to adapt during their brief stay in Cleveland, while the deadline additions have yet to to find consistency.
“The standard is just really high here,” Korver said. “When things don’t go the way you want them to, it’s like, man, why didn’t that work?”
The answer may be that it takes a certain kind of player to fit alongside LeBron. It requires the confidence to perform under intense scrutiny and the self-awareness to exist comfortably in his shadow. If you can do that — be yourself and submerge your ego — then you get the reward: Every year, you will be playing for a championship.
The Cavs have found only a handful of players who meet that criteria, and this is arguably the weakest supporting cast of any of the nine teams James has taken to the Finals. Their point differential was barely positive and they finished the season with the second-worst defense in the league. Besides Love, there is nothing close to another all-star on the roster.
James himself has called this one of his most challenging seasons. He took stock of the situation around the trade deadline and vowed to move ahead with whatever he had to work with this season.
“I just kind of reset my mindset and said, ‘OK, this is the season and let’s try to make the most of it,’” James said after Game 7 of the conference finals. “That’s what’s gotten me to this point, gotten our team to this point.”
The 2018 Cavs: Let’s Try and Make the Most of It!
Would that even fit on a T-shirt?
At first glance, Jeff Green would seem an unlikely candidate to thrive alongside James. While possessing enviable athleticism, Green’s career has been defined in part by an inability to make three-point shots consistently. That tends to be one of the prerequisites for success with LeBron, who needs the space those shooters provide to operate effectively.
Yet, Green had a solid campaign for the Cavs. Playing mostly as a reserve, he averaged double figures in scoring and posted the best True Shooting Percentage of his career. Most importantly, he played inspired basketball when his opportunity arrived.
In many ways, Green’s play was reminiscent of Richard Jefferson during the 2016 Finals against the Warriors. Like Green, Jefferson also replaced Love in the lineup after the forward suffered a concussion, and like Green, Jefferson changed the complexion of the series with his defense.
It’s not the most glamorous gig in the league, but that’s all it takes to enjoy postseason glory when you play with LeBron. The opportunity will inevitably present itself and you’d best be ready to perform when it happens. That’s the number one requirement for a LeBron role player, regardless of whatever skills you bring to the equation.
“His number was called,” James said of Green. “And he just answered the call.”
LeBron is not one to pat players on the back or make inspirational speeches. What he does is lead by example and he expects you to follow accordingly in your own way. Roles are not so much assigned as assumed, and jobs are clearly, if narrowly, defined.
His big men are expected to run the floor, rebound, and set solid screens. That works just fine for Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance, provided there’s enough shooting to keep the floor spaced. Those shooters must shoot. James will make the right passes and deliver them exactly the way his shooters want the ball.
“It’s my job when everybody is in a good rhythm to just make sure I get the ball exactly where my guys need it, where all they can think about is just shooting it,” James said. “Just trying to put it on time, on target.”
In Korver and Smith, the Cavs have two long-distance gunners who need no encouragement to let it fly. Korver is a consummate craftsman who has his shot broken down to the tiniest detail. Smith might score 15 points or five depending on the night, and he seems to be at his best when he has defenders draped all over him.
In their own ways, Korver and Smith are perfect shooters for LeBron because both will keep launching shots no matter if they’ve made five in a row or missed every attempt. The only sin in playing off the ball with LeBron is being passive.
“It’s very important for our guards to be aggressive,” James said. “No matter if they are making shots or not, we want them to be aggressive. It just keeps the defense at bay.”
That’s been an issue for George Hill, who arrived from Sacramento as part of the mid-season shakeup. A veteran of playoff battles with the Spurs, Pacers, and Jazz one would have thought that Hill would fit seamlessly, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Hill has had solid scoring nights and games when he’s barely even attempted a shot. After scoring 20 points in his finest playoff performance in Game 6 of the conference finals, Hill was asked why he hasn’t been able to play that way consistently.
“I don’t know what it is,” Hill said. “But I have to program myself mentally to do better.”
That’s the correct approach, which is more than can be said for Rodney Hood. Like Hill, Hood arrived at the trade deadline with the promise of becoming a knockdown shooter on the wing.
Just catch the ball and shoot it: What could be better? Yet, Hood struggled throughout the postseason and he was benched after 11 uninspiring minutes in Game 2 of the Boston series. So, maybe it’s not true that LeBron can take anybody to the Finals.
To be a role player in LeBron’s court is to have the best job in the league, as well as the most thankless. There is little credit and plenty of blame, but there is the opportunity of a lifetime. Give LeBron a half dozen players committed to the cause and that team will be playing in June. It takes a special kind of player to handle those stakes.
“Everybody is going to have their opinion of what LeBron has around him,” Green said. “We lose, we have a terrible team. We win, Oh, we knew they could do it. You know, it’s the way it is.”