CLEVELAND — LeBron James has been Mr. Everything for the Cleveland Cavaliers for much of the 2018 postseason.
Yet, coach Tyronn Lue said Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals — won 116-86 by the Cavs — was James’ best “in a long time.”
Because James really defended.
“As far as helping, closing out to Jaylen Brown’s chest, making him put it on the floor,” Lue explained. “Closing out to (Marcus) Morris. Closing out to (Marcus) Smart, so he did a really good job of just setting the tone of multiple effort and that was good for us.”
James scored 27 points to go with 12 assists on 8-of-12 shooting. But, according to ESPN’s research, Saturday was his best game on defense this postseason.
The Cavs put him on Brown — the Celtics’ best player in the first two games of this series — and Brown didn’t even score until there was 8:20 left in the second quarter.
The Celtics shot 2 of 10 and committed four turnovers when their ballhandler was guarded by James. Brown was 3-of-8 shooting for 10 points.
“Just tried to put myself in position to help our team,” James said. “I think tonight as a group, even when things broke down, we just covered for one another.”
The Celtics lead this series 2-1, and Game 4 is Monday in Cleveland. Boston has never blown a 2-0 lead in 37 tries. But they were startled by how well the Cavs played Saturday and how poorly things went for them.
Cleveland had a 2018 playoffs-high six players score in double figures and connected on 17 3s.
Morris, who forced James into 5-of-16 shooting in Game 1 and scored 21 points himself, struggled in Game 3.
“Personally, I think I did a (poor) job defensively with LeBron,” Morris said. “He was too comfortable when I was guarding him. I made myself very vulnerable on screens and wasn’t disciplined. We can’t have that in a game of this magnitude, and it showed.”
The Cavs gave Al Horford little room to move and it stifled the Celtics’ offense. Boston coach Brad Stevens said the Celtics would have to consider lineup changes “because of the way (Cleveland is) playing.” Tristan Thompson is guarding Horford and Kevin Love is on Morris. The Celtics want to force Love to guard Horford.
“I just didn’t think our offense in general was very good,” Stevens said. “Our defense wasn’t much better. We got thoroughly outplayed on both ends. Obviously we’re going to need to play through him more than that.”
George Hill scored eight points in the first two games of the series, and exploded for 11 in the first quarter of Game 3. JR Smith shot 0-for-7 for no points in Game 2, and recovered with 11 points in Game 3. Kyle Korver connected on all four 3s and finished with 14 points.
The Celtics have been bad on the road all postseason and fell to 1-5 with Saturday’s loss. But never in these playoffs had they been clobbered quite like the clobbering the Cavs laid upon them.
Yet, the Celtics could move to within a game of closing out the Cavs and stopping James’ consecutive NBA Finals streak at seven with a win in Game 4.
“This is the way we have to play,” Lue said. “I think bringing the physicality to start.”