Was LeBron Really That Bad Against The Celtics?

KarlCorrespondent IMay 17, 2010

BOSTON - MAY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers tries to take a shot over Paul Pierce #34 of the Boston Celtics during Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2010 NBA playoffs at TD Garden on May 13, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers 94-85.  NOTE TO USER: User Expressly Acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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As an ardent Cavs fan, I was as disappointed with LeBron in the Celtics series as anyone.  He was terrible in game five, especially, and the overall impression his performance left with me is of a glaring contrast to the greats: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, none of whom were ever so off their games when it mattered so much.

In no way will I suggest here that LeBron measured up to the standard that he has set for himself, and that we have all come to expect he will reach; however, I would like to put his performance against the Celtics in some perspective.

Basketball is a game of matchups, among other things.  Typically, if your team wins the majority of its matchups, it will win the game and/or series.

LeBron's matchup was with Paul Pierce, "The Truth," who two years ago was the Finals MVP.  How'd he do?

He punked him; he dominated him entirely.  26.8 points per game to 13.5 points.  .556 true shooting percentage (overall scoring efficiency) to .439 (the league average is about .540).  9.3 rebounds to 4.7.  7.2 assists to 3.7.  3.50 defensive plays (steals plus blocks) to 1.33. 

The problem for Cleveland was that Boston won every other matchup, with Rondo dominating the point guard matchup just as much as James dominated the small forward matchup; Garnett decisively winning out over Jamison at the power forward matchup; Allen winning the shooting guard matchup over Anthony Parker (though not by that much--Allen almost doubled Parker's points, 15.7 to 8.3, but Allen's true shooting percentage was only .543 to Parker's .682), and Perkins edging Shaq in the center matchup.

Some will question that last judgment, since Shaq scored 13.5 points to Perk's 6.7, but I'll stick to it.  Most of Shaq's points came off dump off passes when a Cavs player had penetrated and Perkins had switched.  When Cleveland passed to Shaq in the post to work one on one against Perk, Shaq was very ineffective, with far more possessions ending in a brick, an offensive foul, or a turnover than ended with points.  Plus Perk outrebounded Shaq.

Also, Boston's main guard off the bench, Tony Allen, did better than Cleveland's main guard off the bench, Delonte West.  I'd say it's a tie between Boston's two bigs off the bench (Wallace and Davis) and Cleveland's two bigs off the bench (Varejao and Hickson), with Varejao being the best of all of them, but Hickson not getting much significant playing time.

So matchups wise, that's Boston 5, Cleveland 1, and one draw.  LeBron dominated Pierce as Rondo dominated Mo Williams.  The really decisive difference, then, was Garnett's strong edge over Jamison, who was pretty bad in the series, scoring just 11.8 points (to Garnett's 18.8) with a true shooting percentage of a wretched .485 (to Garnett's .555).  He was also outrebounded by Garnett.

In effect, LeBron not only had to outplay Pierce, indirectly he had to outplay Rondo.  That is, he needed to dominate Pierce more than Rondo dominated Mo Williams, enough to compensate for Garnett's decisive edge over Jamison, and that he failed to do. 

He was not the LeBron we've come to expect, but if you dominate an all-star in the series as a whole, how bad can you really have been?  It depends on your standard of measurement.  With LeBron, that standard is not Paul Pierce or even Rajon Rondo, but Magic, Bird, and MJ.  On that level, he failed.  But on the level of ordinary mortal NBA players, he was actually pretty damned good.  No LeBron fan is going to be satisfied with that, however, nor is he.