INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James recovered quickly from his neck strain. There’s still too much stress on his back.
He’s carrying the Cavaliers. It’s a springtime tradition.
As has been the case for much of his 15-year career, James has had to perform at an extraordinary level throughout these playoffs, most recently in Cleveland’s Game 2 loss at Boston.
Bouncing back after taking a blow to the jaw from Jayson Tatum’s shoulder that violently twisted his head and sent a chill down the spines of Cleveland fans, James finished with 42 points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists.
It was not enough, however. His teammates failed him and the Cavs fell into a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference finals.
Kevin Love (22 points, 15 rebounds) helped, so did Kyle Korver (four 3-pointers) and Tristan Thompson (8 points, 7 rebounds). But too many other Cavs ranged from mediocre to awful.
If Cleveland is to even the series at home, that has to change starting in Game 3 on Saturday.
“We have to ramp it up,” said J.R. Smith, who didn’t score in Game 2 and committed a critical flagrant foul. “We’re playing too slow. We’re making ‘Bron play hero ball, which is tough to do, especially in the Eastern Conference finals. We got to help him. With that said, we have to give him an opportunity to make him feel confident to give us the ball so we can make the right plays. We got to help him and he’s got to help us.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said James “did everything” in practice Thursday, but the 33-year-old had left the floor by the time media members were allowed in for interviews. James was spotted in the fitness and training area inside the facility.
Lue said the Cavs spent time breaking down video of the two losses. There was plenty to dissect.
Cleveland has had puzzling defensive lapses, and Lue said there were up to nine instances in Game 2 alone where communication breakdowns led to easy baskets or open shots for the Celtics.
On offense, Lue feels Smith and point guard George Hill, who have been outscored 72-12 in two games by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, need to be more aggressive and attack the basket.
Smith believes it’s simpler than that.
“Make shots, that’s the only thing we can do,” said Smith, who is 2 for 17 and 0 for 7 on 3-pointers in the series. “I mean obviously we can do more on the defensive side, but our main focus is to make shots right now when we get it. If we don’t have them, try to make the next-best play. Right now ‘Bron and Kev are working overly hard, trying to carry us. We just got to step up and do our job.”
But talking a good game is one thing, playing one is another. The Cavs don’t have time for speeches or excuses. With their season inching toward danger, results are all that matter.
Hill didn’t record an assist in 28 minutes in Game 1 and had three points in Game 2. He missed time in the opening round against Indiana with back spasms and has been puzzled by his drop-off after playing so well in Cleveland’s sweep over Toronto.
“I’m trying to figure it out myself,” he said. “I think a little bit of just trying to be more involved offensively, trying to be more involved defensively, not waiting until a play is possibly called and things like that to go do it. I’ve just got to be more assertive, I’ve got to play with that edge like I did in the second series
“There’s no one to blame but myself. You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘What can I do better?’”
The Cavs know they need to be more physical after the Celtics took the fight to them in Boston.
Lue raised some eyebrows following Game 2 when he described Boston’s players as “gooning up” the series. Lue explained he wasn’t being critical.
“It’s not a bad thing to goon it up,” he said. “Like, they’re taking hard fouls, they’re being physical. They’re playing playoff basketball. So that’s all I meant by it.”
Thompson said he loves that Boston is playing “hard and chippy.” But he knows if the Cavs don’t ease the burden on James, this fight could be over sooner than expected.
“Other guys have to contribute and other guys have to step up,” Tristan Thompson said. “Of course, it’s a huge luxury having LeBron on our team. At the same time, we have to be ready to play and we have to do our job.”
And get off James’ back.