CLEVELAND — Forget playing like he had throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If LeBron James was even a shell of his usual self in Game 3 against the Boston Celtics, the Cleveland Cavaliers would be up 3-0 in the conference finals and beginning to size up the Golden State Warriors for what would be an NBA Finals rematch.
Game 4 is Tuesday in Cleveland.
“No blame. We’re all to blame,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said Monday, a day after his team was stunned 111-108 by the Celtics. “We lost; it happens. For a guy who played great for five straight months, he’s got to have a bad game sooner or later. He’s human. He didn’t shoot the ball well. It wasn’t his ordinary game. But Kevin (Love, 28 points) and Kyrie (Irving, 29 points) had it going early and they played well, so it kind of got him out of rhythm a little bit in that first half. That’s no excuse.”
It wasn’t just James’ 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting that killed Cleveland, although it was surprising, given the 68 points he’d scored in the first two games of this series. It was his shocking inactivity in the fourth quarter against the Celtics, given his historic efforts against them and Jae Crowder — who typically defends James.
James took just three shots in that fourth quarter and missed them all. He didn’t get to the free-throw line.
“He’s got to be aggressive, get downhill, play like he’s been playing, play confident,” said Cavaliers teammate and friend J.R. Smith, who scored 13 points with eight rebounds in Game 3.
“That’s what I always think, when people of his stature or people like him, you’ve got to play confident the whole night and play aggressive. It’s the Eastern Conference finals. It’s not enough for him. For what he does, what he brings, it’s not enough. He knows that. We know that. Just expect him to be better in Game 4.”
According to cleveland.com, James’ teams are 1-10 in the playoffs when he scores 15 or fewer points. Perhaps foreshadowing what’s to come from him in Game 4, James is averaging 24.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists in the nine playoff games following such a loss (the 10th game will be Tuesday).
James is 20-0 in playoff series in which his team won the first two games, and the Cavaliers are 14-0 in those sets. James hasn’t lost a playoff series against an Eastern team since the second round in 2010, when the Celtics knocked out Cleveland in six games.
James had one of his worst playoff games ever in that series — in Game 5, at home, he scored 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting and the Cavaliers were blown out. The Celtics took Game 6 and the series.
Cleveland still has control in these conference finals and is 13-2 in its last 15 playoff games at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I mean, a game like that just happens,” Lue said. “You move on and hopefully be better the next game. It’s not something we’re going to hang our head on. But we definitely understand that this (Boston) team is not going to quit, they’re going to fight, they’re going to compete.”
The Celtics have to fight on without leading scorer Isaiah Thomas, who is out for the remainder of the playoffs with a hip injury. His teammates celebrated with Thomas via FaceTime following their Game 3 win. They all know not to expect the same, unusually tame James in Game 4.
“I think he’s going to be aggressive,” said Avery Bradley, who scored 20 points and made the game-winning 3-pointer. “I mean, LeBron James understands how to play the game, and he understands what this team needs from him. He’s most likely going to be a lot more aggressive. It’s our job to make sure that we defend him as best we can and just make every — take other guys out of the game.”
Boston trailed 2-0 in the first round against Chicago, but won the next four. This is a whole different deal, however, facing the defending champions without their own best player in Thomas.
And now there may be more adversity for the Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe that forward Amir Johnson has a sprained right shoulder and is questionable for Game 4. Johnson was replaced in the starting lineup for Game 2 by Gerald Green, but after a 44-point loss and with Thomas out, Stevens went back to Johnson in Game 3.
Stevens would rather play Kelly Olynyk (15 points in Game 3) and Jonas Jerebko (10 points) than Johnson anyway.
“We always believe in ourselves,” said Avery Bradley, who scored 20 points and made the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 3. “It’s not always the outcome that we want, but that’s part of the game.
“You’re going to have ups and downs. You obviously hear people saying that it’s all about how you respond, and we don’t feel like people believed in us and counted us out, but that just put another chip on our shoulder, which I think is good. And I hope we can continue to play with that chip on our shoulder and come out the same way next game.”
Stevens looked beyond the scoring numbers James put up in Game 3.
“Well, one of the things, as you go back and watch the film, I thought LeBron made a lot of the right plays,” Stevens said. “When you’ve got guys that are all on fire the way they are, the right basketball play is to find them. He just made it over and over.
“The guy is a tremendous basketball player. He makes the right play over and over, and he thinks the game, he sees the game. He’s a really good defender. He can read situations. So I thought he was pretty darned good. But like I said last night, I’m not going to be critical of the best player in the world.”