The Cavaliers seemed a bit on edge after returning to Cleveland last week. The last time the Cavs lost the first two games of an Eastern Conference playoff series was a decade ago in the pre-Decision days. They were constantly reminded about that by always-helpful reporters during the long layoff between games 2 and 3. It was also brought to their attention, several times, by several people, that the Celtics have never lost a seven-game series in their history after winning the first two games. That’s a dumb and useless fact, but it was wielded like a weapon during various media availabilities over the past few days, held out at the team’s remote rural training facility in Independence, Ohio. It didn’t seem to cut the Cavs so much as aggravate them.
After practice the day before Game 3, Kevin Love stood with his back against the wall. (It was like a frying pan to the face as far as symbolism goes.) He answered one question, then walked off when no one asked another in a timely enough fashion. Love came back to finish off the session, because he’s a professional, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to. Hard to blame him. The Cavs had a lot on their mind. Kyle Korver stood in that very same spot before Love did and flat out said the Cavs have a tendency to get frustrated when things don’t go their way. That is not something professional athletes generally admit out loud in front of microphones and cameras, and certainly not when the season had reached a point of near-critical mass. When I asked Korver if there was a moment he could pinpoint when that frustration got the better of them, he thought about it for a second before asking a question of his own: “In this series, or this season?” He was trying to make a joke out of it, but the underlying truth was obvious.
“I think the standard is just really high here,” Korver continued. “The bar is set really high. Going to the Finals a bunch of years in a row, when things don’t go the way you want, it’s like, ‘Man, why didn’t that work?’ This season, there’s been a lot of turnover. We haven’t had the time as a unit that we probably would have liked. So there’s going to be some mistakes out there. We’ve got to learn how to—not learn how to, we know how to—be focused on playing through them, staying positive.”
So, yeah, the Cavs were sweating it for a second there. Lucky for them, the best player in the world also happens to double as prescription-grade basketball antiperspirant. LeBron James was a monster in Game 3: 27 points on 12 shots, along with 12 assists that led to 30 more points for his teammates and a much-needed, easy 30-point victory. James made highlight plays, threw beautiful passes that seemed impossible, and even managed to dunk on a dude in the front row behind the Celtics bench. It was a masterful performance.
But perhaps his greatest feat was finding a way to resurrect the dead-weight roster he’d been carrying. After making just 14 of 57 3-pointers in their first two games in Boston, the Cavs took 34 shots from beyond the arc in Game 3 and made half. Getting more out of his lieutenants also freed James up to play smothering defense. Everyone won that night—except for the Celtics, who definitely lost.
Boston lost again on Monday night. The Cavs beat them, 111-102, to tie the series at 2-2. Cleveland got another incredible, efficient effort from James, who had 44 points in 42 minutes. His six 40-point games are the most in a single postseason since Allen Iverson’s run in 2001.
“For me, that’s why I put in the work between days trying to work on my game,” James said about thwarting Boston’s defensive adjustments. “You can’t force me to do something I don’t want to do.”
He got going early. After Jayson Tatum missed a dunk in the first quarter—one of several missed dunks/layups by Boston to begin the game—LeBron took the ball the other way and converted an and-1 on Marcus Morris for a five-point swing. Then James broke out the celebratory finger guns and may or may not have pointed them at the Celtics bench.
The Cavs shot 50.6 percent from the floor on Monday, but cooled off from distance in the second half and finished 34.8 percent from 3-point range. (The best shooter in the arena was actually this guy; Koby Altman should sign him immediately.) The Cavs also played good team defense for the second straight game, holding the Celtics to 41.2 percent shooting from the field. That defensive effort included Korver, who frustrated Jaylen Brown for much of the night and even converted his hustle into three blocks on Brown (not a typo). Kevin Love also may have started a quarterback controversy in Cleveland. Hard Knocks awaits.
When Ty Lue was asked before Game 3 what the Cavs were focused on, he answered with one word: “offense.” Lue and his guys made a concerted effort in Cleveland to accelerate the pace and hunt for more shots. The Cavs figured going the bully-ball route and playing slow meant falling into Brad Stevens’s trap. Sure, Tristan Thompson got more run and did a good job on Al Horford, and Game 4 was pretty physical, but the Cavs still tried to play faster in Cleveland than they had in Boston. They made it a point to get the ball in quicker on makes, push it on misses, and as Lue said, “play with more speed” when getting into various actions. The Cavs also took advantage of various mismatches on switches, especially when James repeatedly victimized Terry Rozier. Like someone else who had a big weekend and wears a burgundy(ish) uniform, the general gist for the Cavs was maximum effort.
Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that the Cavs got some extra rest thanks to the schedule makers pausing the series for three days between games in Boston to Cleveland. J.R. Smith was certainly thankful. He missed all seven of his 3-point attempts in Boston, then got hot in Cleveland and made six from distance in games 3 and 4 combined and had some very on-brand celebrations.
Maybe the explanation for why these Cavs haven’t been as dominant as previous iterations really is as simple as age and their collective wear and tear over the years. This might technically be a semi-new group following the trade-deadline overhaul, but the core that’s being leaned on heavily in these playoffs has logged a lot of miles together. George Hill is the only newbie regularly getting heavy minutes against Boston; everyone else is one of the Cavs’ usual suspects. They aren’t just battling the Celtics in this series—they’re fighting off the understandable and inevitable fatigue that sets in after a long slog. That’s what Korver meant when he said they were frustrated by everything not going as smoothly as it had in the past. (Which was sort of funny, because does it ever really go smoothly in Cleveland?) They’ve been there and done that—which is why it bothered them when they weren’t able to replicate previous results with consistency this season. That’s the problem with rinse and repeat—the fabric eventually fades. That’s as true for basketball teams as it is for T-shirts.
After Game 3, Love and James took the podium like they had in countless other playoff series and searched for an answer to that very question. Why is it that these Cavaliers—and I’m paraphrasing here—are a hot mess one moment and then on a hot streak the next?
“I don’t know,” LeBron said.
“I don’t know, either,” Love said.
They haven’t known all year. No one has. When this is over, however it ultimately ends, the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers’ year-in-review video should just be a shoulder shrug emoji and maybe that clip of LeBron nutmegging Tristan Thompson.
It has been a weird season for the Cavaliers. That’s not an original thought, just a thought that’s been impossible to shake for various reasons. The Isaiah Thomas drama. The speculation about LeBron’s offseason plans after he spent roughly what Love makes in a year to buy a second home in Brentwood. The trade-deadline roster-remodeling effort. The surprising struggles against the Pacers—including the first time in LeBron’s career that he was forced to play a Game 7 in the first round—followed by the Cavs’ four-game demolition of the Raptors in the second round. It felt like each new moment might finally teach us who these Cavs really are. But after 82 regular-season games and 15 more so far this postseason, the only thing we’ve learned about them for sure is that we haven’t learned anything at all. We’re never going to “know” the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers because there is very little to know: LeBron will carry them as far as he can—that’s the only thing that’s certain.
Even for a franchise that’s reached three straight Finals and ended Cleveland’s insufferable 52-year championship drought, the fact the Cavs are still alive, after a year of abject uncertainty, is an accomplishment. That has everything to do with LeBron, of course. As Stevens conceded after Monday’s loss, LeBron is “the best in the game at evaluating the court and figuring out what he wants and where he wants it.” Through all of Cleveland’s maddening inconsistency, James has excelled. No matter how much the Cavs shake and shimmy under the weight of expectations, James has somehow kept them from cratering. The man is earthquake-proof—and on other nights he is the earthquake. What he’s done this postseason in general, and this series in particular, has been remarkable even by his standards. Maybe that’s why we periodically overlook his staggering achievements—because we’ve gotten used to them.
“It’s something people shouldn’t take for granted,” Horford said following Game 4. “He’s doing great things.”
For all their struggles, and despite all the scrutiny that comes with a LeBron team, especially one as moody as these Cavs, here they are—one of the last four squads still playing NBA basketball, with a chance to wrestle control away from the Celtics when the series shifts to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday. Maybe that’s why the Cavs have so far remained unkillable. Maybe that’s the lesson we’ve been searching for all along. When you spend your entire season on the edge, you get used to the view after a while.