LeBron James Embracing His Inner Scorer Makes Cavaliers Tough to Stop

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterApril 22, 2015

Tony Dejak/AP Images

CLEVELAND — Prior to fully dressing for his group interview at the podium late Tuesday night, LeBron James sat at his locker, sore but mostly smiling. He had just beaten the Celtics 99-91 to take a 2-0 lead in a first-round series, taking over the game in the fourth quarter the way he will frequently need to do for the Cavaliers to get where they want to go, and taking another step up a historical ladder. 

He had scored 15 of his 30 points in the final frame, passing Jerry West for seventh place on the playoff scoring list, an achievement of which, when told, he did not seem aware but which seemed fit for the occasion, however, considering what James had discussed at the morning's shootaround: shutting out all distractions during the postseason. It's something he started in the 2012 postseason after he was tweeting desperate-sounding things like "now or never!" during the 2011 Finals, when it was obvious that the outside noise had become an unbearable nuisance. The blackout hadn't been easy, but necessary, because "there's too much nonsense out there," and during the playoffs he didn't need anything "creeping into my mind for no reason that don't need to be there."

That first Zero Dark Thirty postseason was notable for another reason: how James chose to fill his less burdened brain. He read. Not tweets or texts. Books. Maybe he didn't finish every book that he kept in his locker for pregame perusal, maybe sometimes some of it seemed for public show, but at times, it clearly kept his mind occupied. His first selection during that 2012 postseason, one he would carry with him to shootarounds, had more symbolic significance than the others, even if it hadn't been written by the mentor of someone (Pat Riley) who was on James' side at the time. The book was West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, penned by the Lakers legend. He said at the time, and said again to Bleacher Report on Tuesday, that he related to some of Jerry West's circumstances and challenges.

The message?  

"Perseverance," James said. 

Such as West losing his first seven NBA Finals before winning one?

"Yup, yup," James said. "And not even that. His upbringing, with his father. And people just counting him out. And he just persevered through so many challenging moments in his life, all the way to being a professional. You know, and you can respect someone like that."

He laughed.

"I mean, he's the logo," James said. "He's the logo. So I respect that a lot." 

Apr 19, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles against Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) in the second quarter in game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dav
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

West and James have some other similarities, and not just a strong desire to beat the Celtics, which James, at least in the past five years, has done more regularly than West did. One similarity is that neither could be defined by a single skill set, even as West won the 1969-70 scoring title, averaged more than 30 points in three other seasons and finished his career with a number (27.0) right around where James (27.3) currently sits.

West, like James, wasn't a one-dimensional gunner, not with 6.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds on his average stat sheet, not with efficiency (47.4 percent) that was more than respectable for his day. 

Sometimes, though, West, like all superstars, had to take over, be a little more assertive, a little less of a sharer, for his team to succeed. Sometimes James does, too, though that has sometimes seemed like a challenge for the latter to accept. 

There's been such an obsession with James' relationships, whether with his coaches, his teammates, his former teams, his regions of residence, his business associates or the historical greats, that his complicated relationship with the "scorer" label has sometimes slipped under the radar. 

That label has wooed him, chased him and even stalked him. Yet he's commonly played hard to get, even appearing embarrassed to be associated with it, to be anywhere near its presence. 

He has regularly recoiled at overemphasis on his scoring prowess, or gushing about his point totals, even as countless others would wear such praise with pride. Sure, there have been exceptions when he's hit an extreme, as evidenced by his seething satisfaction when bludgeoning the Celtics for 45 in his last playoff appearance in Boston or his unbridled ebullience when torching Charlotte for 61 last season.

But generally, he has steered conversations about his scoring back to what he has called his "triple threat" capability, with passing and defending counting for at least as much as what he puts through the hoop. Why? Perhaps he's sensitive to being seen as selfish. Maybe he's concerned that his versatility will be overlooked.

Apr 19, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts in the second quarter against the Boston Celtics in game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sp
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It's likely a bit of both.

And yet, even with this reluctance, he keeps rising toward scoring records, passing a slew of stars (including Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley) over the past few months to move to 20th in regular-season scoring, with West next on that list, too, just 279 points away. 

In this game, James combined with Kyrie Irving for the final 28. The Cavaliers, sloppy and sluggish for long stretches, needed them all. And, due to Cleveland's tendency to get lazy defensively and stagnant offensively, which it hasn't shown it can stifle in this series, there will be plenty of nights during this postseason when the Cavs will need production like that again.

When they will need him to embrace his inner scorer.

When they will need him to score something like 15 in the fourth, as he did Tuesday. 

When they will need him to take something in the neighborhood of nine of their 15 shots. When they will need him to, as he put it, "put a staple on the game the best way I know how, and that's being aggressive." When they will need him to "impose his will," which is what Cavaliers coach David Blatt said he did. 

"Obviously, we called his number a lot," Blatt said. "More so than the calling of his number, I just thought LeBron recognized the moment and was very determined to create good offense for both himself and for others."

Let's focus on what he created for himself late, since he had only one of his seven assists in the fourth quarter, that assist going to Irving, who had the Cavaliers' only two other field goals.

There was the transition dribble that led to two free throws. There was the drive from the top, through three bodies, for an easy layup. There was the 13-foot jumper, on his second touch of a possession, after the Celtics switched a pick-a-roll and Tyler Zeller inexplicably sank several steps back.

There was the free throw he made after bulling his way to the basket and shaking off Jae Crowder when the Celtics forward used his arm to obstruct James' strut back to the foul line. There was the layup to finish a break on a feed from Irving. There was the tough-angle pull-up 21-footer when Crowder slid by him.

There was the pounding in the post against guard Avery Bradley that led to an easy lay-in when Celtics forward Jared Sullinger helped too late and accidentally laid Bradley out. And there was the clincher, after he clanked a three-pointer and Tristan Thompson fetched the ball off the backboard, when he blitzed by Zeller to the left side of the rim. 

These points did not come in the course of a Cavaliers run. Rather, nine of the 15 occurred after the Celtics had been the last to score.

They repeatedly kept Boston at bay. 

He did most of his damage from the outside in, rather than just from outside or from the inside out. While the Cavaliers will need his post game in future series—and maybe even some during whatever remains of this one—his approach actually freed him from some of the Celtics' double-teaming that made him more of a facilitator in Game 1.

"He wasn't on the block," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "So he was more on the top, and sometimes isolated on the wing, but he wasn't in the deep block." 

Stevens felt that the Celtics "made those guys"—as in James and Irving—"earn everything they got." He was more frustrated by Boston's other issues, such as its box-outs and transition defense. But, the reality is the Cavaliers had plenty of cause for frustration, too: 18 turnovers and 7-of-29 three-point shooting, with J.R. Smith continuing a postseason cold snap that is becoming Alaskan in nature, dating back to 2010.

Yet, all that was erased because James took over against a spunky but limited squad. When he embraced his inner scorer, the way Jerry West and so many other greats would, and carried his team a little closer to more significant challenges than the Celtics in the East. 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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