BOSTON — Finishing a day's work after nine days off can leave even the most chiseled of bodies feeling sore. Even a superhuman like LeBron James can’t stave off such pain.
“I feel like s--t right now,” James said to a team staffer late Wednesday night, about an hour after the Cleveland Cavaliers had run the Boston Celtics off their home floor in the Eastern Conference Finals’ opening game. “But as soon as I get back to this room, get some vino in me, I’ll be all right.”
He was sitting in front of his locker in the bowels of Boston’s TD Garden, reveling in yet another miraculous playoff performance: 38 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in an easy 117-104 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates. Also, he sat for just six minutes all night, which no doubt was why he was more than happy to spend a few extra postgame minutes in the locker room giving his limbs a rest and hearing from a reporter about the rare company he and teammate Kevin Love, who added 32 points, had just joined.
The two, according to ESPN Stats and Info, had become the first pair of teammates to each score more than 30 points in a playoff game in Boston since Jerry West and Elgin Baylor did so in 1966.
“Hey, Kev, you’ve got to see this,” James called out across the locker room to Love, who was sitting with his knees immersed in ice.
Perhaps most incredible, though, is that accolades like these have become routine for LeBron. He’s averaging 34.8 points—on 56 percent shooting—nine rebounds and 7.1 assists this postseason, making him the rare 32-year-old, 14-year veteran to seemingly improve with age, and to leave venerable Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens feeling lost.
“It’s hard to believe, but he’s better than when I got into the league [four years ago],” Stevens told reporters after Game 1. “A lot better. Just as you get older, you gain more experience, see more things. I didn’t think he could get any better after that, but he is.”
Stevens and the Celtics tried everything they could in Game 1. Big defenders and small, switches and traps. Nothing worked. LeBron set up residence in the paint and got to the rim at will. He drove around bigger defenders and through smaller ones. He shredded double-teams by firing lasers to teammates spread across the floor.
"The way that he reads defense and offense and everything else, he's always picking the matchup that he wants," Stevens said.
Against James, the Celtics looked like a middle school team trying to slow down a varsity high school one. They looked like bowling pins trying to stop the inertia of a ball. Pick any metaphor involving something small and weak attempting to thwart a great force, and that’s what Boston looked like while going up against LeBron.
“It was very clear that he was trying to get to the rim on us no matter who was on him,” Stevens added.
None of this, of course, should come as a surprise, even if the Celtics technically are the higher seed. Remember back in early April, when Boston and Cleveland were gearing up for a showdown and the winner it seemed would earn the East’s No. 1 seed? Well, in the lead-up to that game James was asked about the importance of locking up the conference’s top spot.
“I've played in a lot of big games, man. I'm the last person to ask about a big game in the regular season,” he told reporters at the time. “I’ve been to six straight Finals. I’m the last person to ask about a regular-season game.”
Now here we are, over a month later, and once again we’re reminded that, per usual, James was proved prophetic. This year’s regular season was just a giant tuneup for the Cavaliers.
Defense—eh, not that important anyway.
Home-court advantage—who needs it? Especially when playing in the East, where the Cavaliers have gone 33-4 in postseason games against conference foes since LeBron returned to Cleveland three years ago.
All Cleveland needs is LeBron on the floor, which he always is. This might actually be his most underrated attribute—the fact that he’s always there, even after all these years and miles. There’s only one team that can slow him, and it plays in the Western Conference. In the meantime, the rest of us will have to get used to watching LeBron carve up otherwise strong squads.
“I’ll be much better in Game 2,” James told the Cavaliers staffer in the locker room.
That, if you're the Celtics, is a terrifying thought.