It would be silly to say the Boston Celtics don't have an answer for LeBron James, because not a single basketball team in the world has the solution for what James did in the Cavaliers' 117–104 victory over the Celtics on Wednesday. Cleveland took a 1–0 lead in the East Finals on the strength of James, who played one of the most complete games of sport I've ever seen.
James gave Boston the full LeBron Experience in Game 1. He had a counter for every single move Brad Stevens threw at him. Isolated on Kelly Olynyk? James disrespectfully turned his back on his defender before breezing into the paint for an easy score. Trapped in the pick-and-roll? James morphed into Magic Johnson and effortlessly launched a pass over the outstretched arms of multiple hapless defenders. Defenders cheating off a shooter in the corner to deny LeBron the paint? He simply uncorked an over-the-shoulder pass from the top of the key right into Kyle Korver's sweet spot. Guarding James with a smaller player? He bullied them in the post until effortlessly swishing a fadeaway J. Go small? LeBron played center.
Asked after the game if this is the most comfortable he's ever felt on offense in his career, James demurred.
“It's hard to say. I'm just trying to make plays for myself and my teammates,” an all-business LeBron said. “Tonight was one of those nights I was able to make a couple plays.”
He did more than make a couple plays. Outside of pumping up the basketball to the right air pressure or tying his teammates' shoes, James did every single thing the Cavs asked of him in Game 1, and he accomplished every difficult task with aplomb. The myriad ways James can affect the game stood in stark contrast to Isaiah Thomas, who looked passive for much of the loss, waking up only when the game was already slipping away.
Whereas the attention Thomas draws on offense is his biggest—and often only—asset, it's not quite so easy to pinpoint James's most important contribution. Is it his help defense? His scoring? His passing? Being a coach on the floor? (Seriously, wouldn't you take LeBron over at least 15 other current NBA head coaches?)
“I've always been so impressed with [James's] mental understanding of the game,” Brad Stevens said when asked if he could appreciate James's brilliance. “He's always picking the matchup that he wants. It's hard to believe, but he's better than when I got into the league. I didn't think he could get any better than that.”
Stevens is right—James's in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his career, and there was simply no stopping this version of LeBron during Game 1. And that makes it impossible to beat the Cavaliers, particularly when Kevin Love is having one of the finest games of his playoff career and Tristan Thompson is being a menace on the offensive boards.
Boston definitely needed more from Thomas, who started out the game flat, and maybe was too concerned with getting his teammates involved as opposed to finding his own shot. Ty Lue admitted after the game the Cavs' plan was to sell out on stopping Thomas in the pick-and-roll, and he seemed content letting other players shoot off the resulting looks. If that's the case, Boston's role players need to step up, particularly Al Horford, who was thoroughly outplayed by Love.
The playoffs have been boring in terms of competitive basketball, but there's certainly something to be said about the greatness we've seen so far this spring. It's still a little early to have the “greatest player ever” discussion, but nights like Wednesday are why LeBron has earned the right to be in that conversation. Take out the rings, the teammates and everything else, and just think about all the ways LeBron James can affect a basketball game. Right now, he's performing at the level of a 2K create-a-player who had every attribute maxed out. As long as James is dominating the game from every possible aspect, no one is slowing down the Cavaliers.