“Who’s got LeBron?”
That’s the central question and perplexing problem for Cleveland Cavaliers’ opponents. And none have come up with a good answer yet.
Watching LeBron James dismantle the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals leads you to wonder how the Wizards would’ve handled the 6-foot-8, 250-pound force of nature. Paul Pierce was abused by the Hawks’ Paul Millsap in Game 6 of the semifinals. Otto Porter gives up 50 pounds to James; Garrett Temple gives up the same weight plus two inches.
The Wizards can worry about that next season, as the eastern road to the NBA Finals will run through Cleveland. Atlanta can begin looking forward to next year as well, facing a 3-0 deficit entering Game 4 Tuesday night. No NBA team has ever overcome such a hole and only three teams were able to force a Game 7.
Golden State offers a strong candidate to defend James in Draymond Green, a nimble 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward who was runner-up to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year. Green is the rare NBA player in history who can legitimately guard all five positions.
Actually, that works out perfectly, because James is one of a handful who can play all five positions, often at the same time.
The Warriors and Cavaliers split during the regular season, with Golden State winning at home in a January game that didn’t feature James. He was in the midst of an eight-game absence as he recovered from knee and back injuries. Newly-acquired J.R. Smith torched the Warriors for 27 points but the hosts prevailed and pulled away late in the fourth quarter for a 112-94 victory.
However, James was in uniform when the Warriors’ visited Cleveland in February and Green’s presence wasn’t a deterrent. James had game-highs in points (42) and rebounds (11), totally outplaying Steph Curry on national TV. The four-time MVP asserted his case as his name was dropping from the discussion.
Curry won the award but James is still the planet’s best player. Anyone who forgot could look at his performance against Atlanta in Game 3.
TNT didn’t know how to encapsulate his final stat line – 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists – posting a graphic that read: “First player in NBA playoff history with such numbers.”
They might as well have said “First player in NBA history who’s equal parts Magic & Jordan.” Jordan.
While the Warriors worry about “Who’s got LeBron?” they would be wise to remember “Watch out for Delly!” Matthew Dellavedova has emerged as a pesky menace, taking out Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver in Game 2 and essentially doing likewise to center Al Horford in Game 3.
Korver suffered a high right ankle sprain that disabled him for the remainder of the playoffs when Dellavedova rolled into him during Game 2. Late in the first half on Sunday, the Australian guard rolled into Horford, who threw an elbow in retaliation and was ejected.
“Was it on purpose or not? We don’t know,” Horford told reporters afterward. “Maybe it wasn’t on purpose. But just his track record, I just felt like it was.
“He’s got to learn,” Horford said. “He’s only been in this league for a couple of years or whatever. But he’s got to learn at the end of the day it’s a big brotherhood here. Guys look out for each other. I don’t think it was malicious, but he has to learn.”
The incident nearly overshadowed James’ first postseason triple-double since the 2013 Finals, which gives him 12 overall, the second-most in NBA history behind Magic’s 30. He added to his legend by playing through cramps and other assorted pains that nearly forced him from the game in the fourth quarter and left him kneeling on the court at the final buzzer.
Always the team player, he refused any extra credit.
“I’m not the only guy who’s limping,” he told reporters. “I’m not the only guy who’s cramping. I’m not the only guy who’s hurting. There are a lot of guys out there playing as well and I’m one of them. So I’ve got to go out and help our team win, no matter where I’m at.”
He’s currently one win away from his fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Minus the injured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he’s playing a style more reminiscent of his first trip to the Finals, with Cleveland in 2007. He’s back to being the Big One, not part of a Big Three, adroitly making plays for himself and his teammates. Taking up for his teammates, too.
“(Dellavedova) works his tail off every single day,” he told reporters. “If (the Hawks) are focused on Delly, they’re focused on the wrong thing. I’m a little bit off about it because this is my guy and people are trying to give him a bad rap. He doesn’t deserve it and I don’t like it.”
Guarding James is bad enough when the Finals come into view.
But riled up, too?
Whoever’s got LeBron is going to need as much help as possible.