BOSTON — At age 32 and after seven NBA finals appearances, three titles, and four league MVPs, LeBron James is better now than perhaps ever before, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said following Game 1.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got into the league,” Stevens said, post a pounding from James and the Cavs, 117-104.
“A lot better,” Stevens said. “Just as you get older, you gain more experiences, you see more things. Yeah, I didn’t think he could get any better after that, but he is. He’s a good player. Great player.”
Stevens took over the Celtics in 2013, James’ last season with the Miami Heat and what would be his fourth straight Finals berth. He was coaching in college when James came into TD Garden in 2012, with the Heat trailing the Celtics 3-2 in Game 6 of the conference finals, and dropped 45 points to stun an entire city.
James ripped the Celtics for 38 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists in Game 1. He shot 14-of-24 from the field and 9-of-11 from 3-point range. James opened the game with 15 points in the first quarter on seven baskets at the rim.
On one play, James saw Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk switch onto him. So he turned his back to Olynyk, dribbled backwards through his legs, then turned and drove to the rim for a layup as though Olynyk was watching the play unfold on the curb.
“He made it clear, it was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ first look at James in the playoffs was in 2015, when the Cavs swept the Celtics out of the first round. James averaged 27 points and nine rebounds in that series — not bad — and went on to carry an injury-ravaged team to two wins in the Finals that June.
To Stevens, this version of James is better. He’s scored at least 30 points in seven straight games and 35 or more in the last five.
The Cavs have only played nine playoffs games so far, and in them James is averaging 34.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists. And in the 2016 Finals he averaged nearly 30 points, 11.3 boards, and 8.9 assists, closing them out with three wins in which he scored 41, 41, and 27 (as part of a triple double in Game 7).
It’s been, well, quite a run. James was asked if, at minimum, this was the most “comfortable” he’s been in his 14-year career and he said “it’s too hard to say.
“Tonight was another one of those games where I made a couple plays to help us get a win,” James said.
Anyway, if James is better, or more comfortable, or more efficient than he’s been in years, what about the Cavs? Are they better at 9-0 in the playoffs now than they were with the same record at this point last postseason?
Maybe “better” isn’t the word. Scarier, perhaps.
In Game 1, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson both set career playoff highs with 32 and 20 points, respectively. Stevens said the Celtics started to help on James in the third quarter, after he had posted 23 first-half points, and Love went off for 18 points and five 3-pointers.
“Once we started helping and over-helping a little bit, Love goes nuts in the third quarter,” Stevens said. “This is the predicament they put you in.”
The Celtics were indeed torched by James and Love, and then Thompson. But Kyrie Irving, who entered play averaging 23.8 points in the playoffs, scored just 11 and shot 4-of-11. J.R. Smith scored the first basket of the game and finished with two points. Kyle Korver was 1-of-6 from 3-point range. Channing Frye barely played.
That’s four potentially explosive weapons who were relative duds in Game 1, and the Celtics still stood no chance. It’s why before the game Stevens said the Cavs had the “perfect roster” around James.
There are too many shooters, too many dynamic scorers for opponents to worry about to devote too much of the defense to stopping James.
“I don’t even think we played that great tonight,” James said. “We definitely didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’re capable of shooting. I know Kyle had three or four very, very good looks that he missed when we had a good stretch.
“But I think the energy and the effort and the mindset was where it needed to be starting on the road, especially in the Eastern Conference finals.”