LeBron James went scoreless for the last 16 minutes of game three of the Eastern Conference Finals as his Cleveland Cavaliers fell to the Boston Celtics 111-108. As the Celtics were able to win with their best player injured and on the bench, the Cavaliers came up short and their best player struggled the entire game.
James scored only 11 points on 4-13 shooting with six turnovers. The 11 points were his lowest point total in a playoff loss since May 2014, when he scored only seven points in a loss to the Indiana Pacers. James has scored 30-plus points in all but one of the playoff games this year, and the low scoring and inefficient performance last night came as a big surprise.
As Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had a big first half and the Cavaliers built a big lead, James was content to facilitate and defer to his teammates. But as the Celtics closed the gap and began hitting from the outside, Cleveland needed LeBron to be the closer and finish the game. Instead, James missed his last six shots from the field and Boston won on a last second shot on a well executed out of bounds play (and some classic J.R. Smith defense).
The poor performance from James is hard to explain. His hesitancy in attacking the rim was surprising, especially when considering the ease with which he scored in games one and two. The matchups that he took advantage of in the first two games were not exploited in-game three, and James seemed to be in a pass-first mindset as he looked for the hot three-point shooters. Once the shooters started to miss, the Cavaliers’ game plan fell apart.
Despite some people claiming that LeBron “can be as mentally fragile a superstar as we have ever seen,” and bringing up his postseason failures of the past (see 2011 NBA Finals), it is unlikely that we will see the shortcomings of game three repeated again in this series. As LeBron was struggling and the Cavaliers were missing their three-pointers, the Celtics got hot and Isaiah Thomas disguised himself a Marcus Smart for the second half.
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The Celtics made 11 threes in the second half, with the career 29 percent three-point shooter Smart making five of those. The Cavs only made two three-pointers in the second half after making 14 in the first half. The combination of poor shooting from the Cavaliers, amazing shooting from the Celtics, and unlikely bench contributions from Jonas Jerebko all led to the Celtics winning by a grand total of three points. The best case scenario for the Celtics resulted in a narrow victory.
If the Celtics’ best case scenario does not manifest itself again in game four, the Cavaliers will bring the series back to Boston with a 3-1 lead. The Cavs are best when they try to work the ball inside to Kevin Love and work their rebounding advantage against Kelly Olynyk, and are less reliant on the jump shot. More high pick and roll with James and Kyrie Irving should get James some of the matchups against Olynyk and Al Horford that he took advantage of in games one and two. Finally, James averages more than 29 points per game in playoff games after a loss. The King is also the king of bouncing back. They will need him to return to form by Tuesday night for game four at 8:30 on TNT.