After 'Feel-Out' Game 1 vs. Celtics, History Is on LeBron James' Side

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IMay 15, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James appeals to an official during Game 1 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 13, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

BOSTON — When LeBron James wasn't busy recalling exactly what happened during a 7-0 run by the Boston Celtics to start the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, he managed to toss this thought-provoking tidbit to the ravenous media crowd.

"Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me, if you've ever followed my history," he said after the Cavaliers fell 108-83 Sunday night.

LeBron doesn't always lose and play poorly in Game 1 of a playoff series, but it's happened often enough to at least look into what the man is saying.

This marked the 15th time in James' illustrious career that his team has dropped the first game of a postseason series. And with the expectation for a forceful response from James in Game 2, it's worth studying the history, as he suggested.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 13, 2018 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User e
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

James is 8-6 in postseason Game 2s following a loss. He's 2-4 in series in which he's trailed 0-2 (the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons and 2016 Finals against the Warriors being the exceptions). Likewise, he's 6-2 in series in which his team has responded with a Game 2 victory following a loss (the exceptions being the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando and the 2015 Finals against Golden State).

Of the six times James has faced an 0-2 deficit, two of them have come in his second tour of duty with the Cavs—both at the hands of the Warriors in the 2016 and '17 NBA Finals. Other than that, James most recently faced an 0-2 deficit in the second round against the Celtics in 2008, when James' Cavaliers lost Game 2, 89-73, and ultimately lost the series in seven games.

So if that doesn't highlight just how pivotal Game 2 is for James and the Cavs on Tuesday night, I don't know what else will.

"I expect him to have a big response," Kevin Love said Monday. "He's always done it. Since he came back to Cleveland, since I've been here, he's always responded big. I imagine it'll be a lot like Game 2 against Indiana. We had a really tough loss, and he came out and played very well. He's going to approach this game as one where he's going to have to lead and bounce back."

James, who did not address the media Monday, also said Sunday night: "I have zero level of concern at this stage. … I've been down 0-1; I've been down 0-2. I've been down before in the postseason."

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 18: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high-five during the game against the Indiana Pacers in Game Two of Round One during the 2018 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 2018 at Quicken Loan
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

As Love mentioned, just this postseason, the Cavs dropped Game 1 in the first round at Indiana, with James putting up 24 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists on 7-of-17 shooting in a 98-80 defeat. He roared back in Game 2 with 46 points, 12 rebounds and five assists on 17-of-24 shooting in a 100-97 victory. The Cavs won the series in seven.

There have been times (against the Warriors and Spurs in the Finals, for example) when dropping Game 1 of a series has proved to be less of a "feel-out game" and more like "the other team was just better." After all, when facing the same team that opposed him in last year's conference finals—and one the Cavs played three times in the regular season this year—what mysteries are there to unravel?

"I've got a great sense of the way they played me [Sunday] and how I'll play going into Game 2," James said.

Over James' postseason lifetime, a circumstance similar to what he's suggesting here against the Celtics has played out on a few other memorable occasions.

In the 2015 second round, the Cavs lost Game 1 to the Bulls, 99-92 at home, with James putting up 19 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists on 9-of-22 shooting. The Cavs won Game 2 106-91, behind 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists on 13-of-29 shooting from James. The Cavs won the series in six.

In 2011, James and the Heat lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Chicago, 103-82. James had 15 points, six rebounds and six assists on 5-of-15 shooting—not unlike his 15-7-9 on 5-of-16 shooting against Boston on Sunday. The Cavs won Game 2 85-75 (hey, it was a different NBA back then.) James had 29 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and shot 12-of-21. Miami won the series in five.

But there has been only one time when James' team has lost a Game 1 by a wider margin than Sunday's 25 points: the 2006 second round at Detroit, when the Cavs were dismantled 113-86. They lost Game 2 97-91 despite 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists from James and lost the series in seven.

PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

Over his career, James has averaged 22.6 points in Game 1 losses and 31.9 in subsequent Game 2 victories. Equally notable, in the six Game 2s he's lost when facing an 0-1 deficit, he's averaged 23.8.

James is 33 now, hurtling toward the end of his 15th season. I am not going to be the guy to doubt that he can rear back and throw a haymaker at the Celtics on Tuesday night, the way he did in Game 2 against the Pacers a few weeks ago or Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. That's when he demolished the Pistons by scoring 25 consecutive points in a 109-107 double-overtime victory. The Cavs won the series in six before getting swept by San Antonio in the Finals.

But James' teammates—who shot 4-of-21 from three-point range Sunday while James went 0-of-5—shouldn't be sitting around and waiting to be rescued. James was 4-0 when facing an 0-1 deficit in Miami, in large part because he was playing with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Since returning to Cleveland, he's 3-2.

For a repeat of Game 2 against Indiana, the Cavs are going to need more than what they got from James' supporting cast in that game: 5-of-16 shooting from Love, five points from JR Smith, 16 points from their bench and a DNP-CD from Tristan Thompson.

Coach Tyronn Lue hinted strongly Monday that Thompson could be back in the starting lineup for Game 2, noting his history of success defending Celtics All-Star Al Horford. Such a strategic adjustment could result in more mismatches for James on pick-and-rolls and, since the Celtics switch everything, could also open offensive rebounding lanes for Thompson.

As for James, if Game 1 truly was a "feel-out game," he needs to take his own advice, look at the history and treat Game 2 like something else entirely.

A close-out game.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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