Before the Eastern Conference finals began — hours before the Boston Celtics fell behind by as many as 28 points in their Game 1 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and days before Boston trailed by as many as 50 in Cleveland’s Game 2 romp — Celtics coach Brad Stevens offered some pretty heady praise for his opponent.
“This is a perfect roster with regard to how many predicaments they can put you in with all the shooting around [LeBron James],” Stevens said. “You never want to double when you have that much shooting because eventually, like I said, they’re going to find a good shot. If not, they’re going to get the rebound.”
Never mind the fact that the Cavs were the No. 2 seed and the Celtics had home court thanks to the No. 1 record in the East. Forget about the Celtics being younger and ostensibly hungrier, having zero players on their team with championship experience. The Cavs, in Stevens’ eye, were capable of perfection.
Cleveland’s roster construction begins with James, of course, a player so special, so versatile, so commanding that general manager David Griffin refers to him as “cheat code.” As in, sometimes it’s simply unfair to have him on your side.
His averages through Cleveland’s 10-0 postseason start are almost surreal: 34.3 points on 56.9 percent shooting (45.8 percent from 3), 8.5 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game.
He is the engine, the Swiss Army knife, the queen on the chessboard, gifting Cavs coach Tyronn Lue with endless lineup possibilities because of the sheer amount of positions he can provide: small forward, stretch forward, back-to-the-basket big, point guard, point forward, defensive rover, defensive ballhawk, etc.
James is flanked by Kyrie Irving, perfectly suited to take turns with James dissecting the defense when he gets one-on-one coverage; and Kevin Love, a floor spacer so respected that he gives James and Irving the requisite room to attack, yet so skilled that he can also create as a passer or a scorer when the offense is initiated through him. They all make each other that much more dangerous when the defense chooses to key in on one individual.
“How do you not pay extra close attention to the best player in the world?” Stevens said of James. “And with the way Kyrie has scored the ball on the biggest stage over and over and over, and with his ability, there’s another one that you have to react to over and over. So there are all kinds of issues with defending them.”
Dangerous, sure. Potent, absolutely. But perfect? The team that was wildly inconsistent in the regular season and even showed signs of vulnerability as recently as the first round of the playoffs?
“Well, that’s a huge compliment, but there’s no such thing for us,” James said of Stevens’ assessment. “We don’t have a perfect roster. We don’t have a perfect team. But we can make up for mistakes, and we can make up for maybe some deficiencies that we may have because we communicate, we fly around and we sacrifice for one another. That could put us as close to perfection as possible, which you can’t ever get to. But our communication level, our sacrifice, what we give to each other every night kind of covers that, kind of covers some of the faults that we may have. And with the faults that we do have, we try to get better and better at it so we can be as great as we can be every single night.”
Is James being modest or is Stevens simply fawning? Irving told ESPN’s Adam Amin this week, “This is hands down probably going to be the best team I’ll ever play with,” and while Irving can be prone to hyperbole, Cavs veteran James Jones, who has already played on three championship teams, backed him up.
“Not just from a personnel standpoint, but also from a personality, from a character standpoint,” Jones said of what makes the 2017 Cavs as good as any team he’s been on. “We all mesh well, we’re all complementary, and we’re all winners. And that is a big part of why we look so good and we mesh so well on the floor, because socially and mentally, we’re very similar.”
Cleveland’s payroll, cha-chinging in at around $128 million plus the luxury tax, would naturally afford a team loaded with talent. But it’s the nature of the talent beyond the Big 3 — defensive-minded players such as Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert; offensive-minded threats such as Kyle Korver, Deron Williams and Channing Frye; and guys who excel at both at various times in J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson — that gives the Cavs so many permutations.
“You can play a whole bunch of different type of styles,” said Dahntay Jones. “So, like, you can play big, you can play small, you can play fast, you can play athletic with 1 through 15. And every time, if the game needs something else, we can always go to that. We can get in foul trouble and still have defenders to wear people down — different types of defenders for different people. We’ve got guys that can play multiple positions. Like, we can change the game at any point and time, and I think that’s what he’s talking about to where if they go to a counter, we can counter that with something different and put you in a different pickle where, ‘They’re trying to take one thing away? OK, we have another strength on another side as well.'”
And what’s the feeling when you’re say, oh, I don’t know, a team like Boston that can’t claim the same versatility and is aware of its limitations?
“It’s not helpless, but you feel like you got to play perfect because you know that you cannot play a certain way or compensate for a certain type of play that the other team is being dominant in so you feel like you have to kind of not make mistakes,” said Dahntay Jones. “But here, it’s like, we’re always going to make mistakes, but we’re going to play hard regardless. We’re always going to communicate, we’re going to play defense and then we can adjust accordingly. We try to keep everybody ready so when it’s time to adjust it’s like, pow, you stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
A win Sunday to go up 3-0 in the conference finals would give the Cavs the longest postseason winning streak at 14 games, breaking a tie with the 1988-89 Los Angeles Lakers. That’s certainly one measure of perfection. Another would be besting what they did in Game 2, when the Cavs set all-time records for the largest halftime lead in a playoff game (41), for the largest win of James’ career (counting both regular season and the playoffs), the largest win in franchise playoff history and the biggest defeat against a No. 1 seed in NBA playoff history.
“We’re just continually trying to seek and find that perfect game,” James Jones said. “And it sounds so cliché, but for us, there’s a true belief that we can get there and that’s the most empowering thing, the thought that you can have as a collective group.”