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Cavs Panic Meter: How Worried Should LeBron Be?

James says he isn’t concerned, but Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals surfaced several lingering issues for Cleveland

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After the second-largest Game 1 loss of LeBron James’s career, he told reporters that he isn’t worried. Three consecutive wins in 2016 taught the world to never count out an LBJ team. But the Celtics not only stopped a streaking Cavs team in their 108-83 win; they also contained LeBron. Boston dominated from the first quarter, and when the Cavs closed the gap to just 14 points in the third quarter, the Celtics responded with seven points in 45 seconds. Cleveland entered as the series favorites, but here are five reasons the oddsmakers may be wrong, ranked from mildly concerning to legitimately alarming.

5. The Cavs’ regular-season problems haunt them again.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry crumbled so much during the Cavs’ sweep of the Raptors that we almost forgot how bad Cleveland’s defense was during the regular season. Game 1 was a quick reminder. Jaylen Brown managed the same number of shots (16) as the best player in the series (even if LeBron didn’t look like it Sunday), and not one Boston starter took fewer than 10. Jayson Tatum didn’t score until the final second of the first quarter, yet he finished with more points (16) than LeBron; Al Horford shot a near perfect 8-for-10; and Marcus Morris looked like a two-way savior with 21 points, not the dude who bricked nine of his 10 field goal attempts last game.

Tyronn Lue can’t turn to the same Cavs role players on offense that he does on defense. Considering that the Cavs scored only 83 points, he can’t turn to much of his roster on either side of the ball. Once known as a solid defender, George Hill was automatic points for whichever Celtic drove against him. Tatum ran circles around J.R. Smith. Jordan Clarkson is having the worst postseason of perhaps any Cavalier. Rodney “I’m Not Playing” Hood did contribute 11 points and played 19 minutes because of Lue’s desperate hunt for another playmaker, but he seemed to continue his Game 4 protest whenever he was on defense.

4. Cleveland is vulnerable by the basket.

None of the success that Cleveland has with Kevin Love at the center spot on offense matters when he has to defend Horford. Despite Love scoring a team-high 17 points, he let Horford past him like they were practicing in pregame warm-ups. Horford went 7-for-8 with Love guarding him, with his only miss coming 26 feet from the basket. In the end, Cleveland allowed Boston 60 points in the paint, more than half its total. (Mike D’Antoni just fainted from the efficiency.) The issue flips when Lue turns to Tristan Thompson, who becomes yet another body on the floor who can’t be counted on to score.

3. Kevin Love and Kyle Korver can’t get their looks.

Uncontested shots for Cleveland were few and far between, as a Boston defender still had his hand in front of most attempts. LeBron was unable to get inside (more on that later), which limited the open looks that Love and Kyle Korver found on the perimeter in the last round. The two shooters’ stat lines reflected that: a combined 2-for-9 from deep. But Cleveland struggled from 3 on the whole, missing 14 3s before one finally dropped.

2. Cleveland needs Kyrie more than Boston does.

The only reminder that Boston was missing its two 2017 offseason max players came when the broadcast showed Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward clapping on the bench. Meanwhile, it was obvious that Cleveland, fully healthy, was missing crucial pieces in its roster in general.

Cleveland moved on from its Irving relationship by overcommitting to a gaggle of rebound guys, and the Cavs still don’t have an acceptable playmaker outside of LeBron. George Hill finished with zero assists. And even when LeBron was the one running point, Hill—who struggled to get his five points—couldn’t manage to contribute elsewhere. Not much can be expected from Jose Calderon’s four minutes in the game (or Jose Calderon, in general), and backup Jordan Clarkson is having perhaps the worst playoffs of any Cavalier.

1. Boston’s team defense is the toughest LeBron has faced in the 2018 playoffs.

Before the series began, Marcus Morris said that he’s “probably the best guy in the league defending [LeBron] outside of Kawhi.” Brad Stevens started Morris in Game 1 in place of Aron Baynes to help his guy make good on that not-so-humblebrag. And Morris delivered. While Morris was defending LeBron, James scored just five points on six shots. Because of Boston’s game plan—where guarding James is a group effort shared among Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier—LeBron was held to 15 points total, and he turned the ball over seven times. (Against the Raptors last series, he had eight turnovers total.)

Boston cut off LeBron’s ability to drive to the basket, pushing him outward. There’s no real way to stop LBJ, but forcing him into jumpers and perimeter shots is the most a defense can hope for. Sunday, those shots weren’t falling—LeBron took five 3s and missed them all (again, an effective strategy since Cleveland has no one else on the floor with the ability to create).

LeBron was a minus-26 through two quarters, which was the worst mark of his career during a postseason half. Even worse, his playoffs terrorization of Horford—who entered Game 1 1-15 against James through his postseason career—just dissolved.