LeBron James came into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals knowing scoring wouldn’t be enough. He had a 42-point triple-double in Game 2, and the Cavs still lost by 13. LeBron changed his approach Saturday, finishing with 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting, the fewest shots he has taken in the playoffs. He redistributed his energy to defense, making plays all over the floor and staying engaged off the ball in a way we haven’t seen in years. At the age of 33, playing in his 15th season in the NBA, LeBron no longer has the stamina to go all-out for 48 minutes. Trusting his teammates with the offense allows him to be a more complete player, a must for the Cavs to come back from a 2-1 deficit in the series.
LeBron was everywhere in Cleveland’s 116-86 Game 3 win over Boston. Instead of being a passive observer like he was in games 1 and 2, he got into his man, quarterbacked the defense, and made quick rotations. LeBron had two steals and two blocks in the first half alone, almost doubling his combined average of 2.4 steals and blocks per game in the playoffs. He denied entry passes, protected the rim, and didn’t give up on plays. When he was beaten off the dribble, he either got back to his man or shuttled his assignment to a teammate and found someone else to guard.
The result was one of Cleveland’s best defensive efforts of the playoffs, holding Boston to 86 points on 39.2 percent shooting after the Cavs had given up an average of 107.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting in the first two games. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, LeBron can cover up the paint as well as any big man. Even the simple act of keeping his arms up, sliding his feet, and tracking the ball makes it harder for the Celtics to get into their offense. Just as important is the way LeBron’s energy level impacts his teammates. It’s hard to stay engaged when your best player is checked out, and LeBron can’t hold his supporting cast accountable if he’s not giving his best effort, either.
Defense is where Father Time has caught up to LeBron. While he is averaging near career-high numbers in the playoffs (32.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 9.4 assists a game on 54.5 percent shooting), the price for his brilliance has come on the other end of the floor, where Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue rests his superstar as much as possible. LeBron’s primary defensive assignments in all three series have been secondary options: Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Darren Collison against Indiana; OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka against Toronto; and Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown against Boston.
It’s a far cry from his days in Miami, when he would take the most difficult defensive assignment, regardless of position. LeBron took Derrick Rose out of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals; matched up with players like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Paul George; and played a key role in the Heat’s hyperaggressive pick-and-roll schemes. Peak LeBron was one of the best two-way players in NBA history. He was 28 in the 2012-13 season, when he finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and averaged 26.8 points (on 56.5 percent shooting), 8.0 rebounds, and 7.3 assists a game. If he had tried something similar this season, he would have collapsed from exhaustion. He almost did in Game 7 of Cleveland’s first-round series against the Pacers last month.
LeBron picks and chooses his spots these days. He knows he has only so much gas in the tank. It’s no coincidence that his three worst games of the playoffs (games 1 and 6 against Indiana, Game 1 against Boston) came in blowouts. LeBron can read the game as well as any player in the league. He saw that his team didn’t have enough on those nights, so he shut himself down. While he might have led a comeback if he’d fully exerted himself, he couldn’t risk depleting himself for an outside shot to win. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote earlier in the playoffs, LeBron has become a master of conserving energy, even in the middle of the game.
The only way LeBron can afford to play harder on defense is for the other Cavs to step up on offense. Kevin Love played like an All-Star against Toronto and has continued to against Boston, but he’s a lumbering big who can’t beat his man off the dribble. The missing piece for Cleveland is a secondary scorer on the perimeter who collapses the defense, a player LeBron openly coveted even when Kyrie Irving was on the team. George Hill has struggled with a back injury, and Lue doesn’t have confidence in the Cavs’ other ball handlers. Rodney Hood’s most notable playoff moment is refusing to play in Game 4 against Toronto, while the only thing Jordan Clarkson has done consistently is make bad decisions.
Hill was the difference in Game 3, as having three days off seems to have done his back some good. While he finished with only 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting and two assists, he was more aggressive than he had been earlier in the series. He took almost as many shots in the first quarter on Saturday (seven) as he had in the first two games combined (eight). The Cavs are a different team when he is a threat: He is averaging 10.1 points and 2.9 assists a game in their playoff wins and 7.0 points and 0.8 assists a game in their losses. He’s better as a 3-and-D player, but Cleveland has no one else to fill that role.
Empowering Hill puts the rest of the team’s rotation in more natural roles. After starting LeBron at the 4 against Toronto, Lue went to a bigger lineup with Love and Tristan Thompson up front to force the Celtics out of their preferred small-ball lineups. Thompson is an energy big man, and J.R. Smith shouldn’t be anything more than a spot-up shooter, which means Hill has to be the third option behind LeBron and Love. He also serves as the offensive initiator for the second unit, since Clarkson can’t be trusted with the ball and Jose Calderon is useful only in emergency situations.
All of Cleveland’s pieces clicked in Game 3. LeBron and Love combined for 50 percent of the total field goal attempts from their starters, compared with 61.2 percent in Game 1 and 73.4 percent in Game 2. The Cavs were getting offense out of pick-and-rolls between Hill and their big men, allowing LeBron to spot up off the ball and get easy points cutting to the rim. He didn’t have to work as hard to score, which might have contributed to his knockdown shooting: He shot 3-of-3 from 3 and 8-of-10 from the free throw line. It was a complete team effort. The ball was moving on offense, and everyone was engaged on defense.
Cleveland still doesn’t have much margin for error. That went away when Kyrie was traded and Isaiah Thomas proved an incompatible replacement. The Cavs offense depends on one-dimensional players knocking down 3s: They shot 17-of-34 (50 percent) from 3 in Game 3 after going 14-of-57 (24.6 percent) in games 1 and 2. It’s easier to shoot at home than on the road, which Boston has also shown in this series. The Celtics shot 6-of-22 (27.3 percent) from 3 at the Q on Saturday after shooting 21-of-61 (34.4 percent) in the friendlier confines of TD Garden. Would LeBron have been willing to take a backseat on offense if his teammates had missed shots early and the Celtics had made them?
There’s a chicken-or-egg thing going on between LeBron and the other Cavs. It’s hard for him to give up control of the offense if they aren’t playing better, but the only way for them to play better is for him to give up control. The downside of having one player who does everything is that it doesn’t leave much for anyone else to do. There are only so many points, rebounds, and assists to go around over the course of the game, especially for a team that often walks the ball up the floor. Playing defense is a thankless job, and it’s hard for players to give their all if they don’t feel like they are being rewarded on offense.
LeBron can’t beat Boston by himself. The Celtics won’t collapse like Toronto did, and they won’t have to win a Game 7 on the road like Indiana did. Cleveland needs its supporting cast to play well at least once in TD Garden to win the Eastern Conference finals. It’s a tough task made even tougher by the way the Celtics can isolate and attack a weak link. The Cavs don’t have many consistent two-way players on their roster. The guys LeBron can trust on defense aren’t the same ones he can trust on offense.
Trust has always been an issue for LeBron, and it will play a significant factor in his decisions moving forward. He has never trusted younger players in the playoffs, which is why his teams have relied on veterans and never gone deep into their bench. However, the older and slower he gets, the more speed and athleticism he needs around him. No matter what happens in the playoffs, he will have a lot of options in free agency this summer. The most important thing he can do is sign with an organization that has a front office, a coach, and a group of players he believes in. LeBron has to trust everyone around him to do their jobs. He’s too old to do it for them.