LeBron James is a record-setter. I could list out all his achievements, but there’s already a 12,000-word Wikipedia page that does so in a far more organized manner than I ever could. Virtually every time LeBron James steps on a basketball court, he’s doing something no one in the history of the game has ever done before. He is unprecedented.
In this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron appears set to make history yet again. LeBron’s accumulated 29 turnovers this series. In 2012-13, Paul George set the record for most turnovers in a Conference Finals with 32. That feat took seven games.
Through five games, LeBron has been epically careless with the ball, averaging 5.8 turnovers per game. Certainly, some of James’ troubles can be attributed to the sheer amount he’s had to do. His usage rate is through the roof this series, checking in at 36.8 percent, highest among rotation players in either Conference’s Finals, as is his 44.6 percent assist percentage. When you have the ball in your hands that much, you’re bound to turn it over sometimes.
However, James is used to shouldering a load that large. In the regular season, he posted comparable usage rates and assist percentages of 31.6 and 43.2 percent, respectively. What has changed, though, is LeBron’s passing efficiency. From 2.15 in the regular season, LeBron’s assist to turnover ratio has fallen to 1.41 this series. He’s assisting way less per turnover, meaning that his increased turnovers are not merely a function of increased usage.
Instead, we’re learning that the Boston Celtics’ defense is a problem, and more importantly, that LeBron James might just be human:
The Celtics have demonstrated a willingness to help off corner three-point shooters on the weak side all series, even when that shooter is Kyle Korver. Often, that would be inadvisable (it helped do Toronto in), but Boston’s done it well. Jaylen Brown executes the double in a timely manner, using his length to smother James the instant he catches the ball. Aided by the Cavaliers’ lack of off-ball movement, the Celtics close all the passing lanes and force James into a turnover.
There have been several instances of a well-oiled Celtics defense simply getting the best of James:
This is a clinic in pick-and-roll coverage. Aron Baynes contains James’ drive, then recovers fast enough to Tristan Thompson to obstruct the lob. Meanwhile, Brown reads the play beautifully, recognizing the lob quickly. He rotates over from the corner in a timely manner, ensuring Thompson cannot execute the catch. All series, Boston’s defense has been crisp, executing to the extreme, even when all the cogs need to move in unison, and it’s given James fits.
While the “LeBron stopper” is a myth, real as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, several Celtics have served admirably as LeBron deterrents:
Marcus Morris plays a flawless possession on James, in what looks more like a well-choreographed dance than NBA defense. Morris slides his feet, beating James to the spot and stopping his initial drive. James reloads, punches back, and Morris stonewalls him again, throwing James off balance and forcing a turnover.
Celtics defenders have also proven a nuisance to James with active hands:
Celtics defenders seem acutely aware of their weaknesses, namely an inability to stop the most physically unstoppable basketball player in history. Therefore, they’ve put constant pressure on him, pestered him relentlessly, and forced him into some avoidable turnovers.
Cleveland’s unimaginative offense and lacking coaching have played their parts, too:
With Thompson on the floor, the Cavaliers have a little margin for error on offense. With Thompson camped in the dunker spot, Cleveland’s essentially inviting Brown to help off and smother James’ drive.
What’s more damaging, though, is George Hill’s dedication to stagnation. As Hill remains stationary in the corner, Marcus Smart can simultaneously help on Thompson, preventing a dump off and shutting down the passing lane to Hill.
With any semblance of intelligent spacing, Hill could’ve had a wide open three on that play. Alas, the Cavaliers’ coaching staff seem averse to incorporating anything intelligent into the gameplan (yes, Ty Lue actually said this).
Now, James is far from blameless for his turnovers:
Terry Rozier fronts Larry Nance perfectly, nearly pushing him under the basket. James sees this but attempts the pass anyway. Throughout the series, James’ decision-making has been mind-bogglingly poor. Far too often, he seems to decide on a pass, and regardless probability of success, attempt it:
James wants to hit Korver cutting baseline, but Baynes is camped in the lane the whole time. LeBron sees Baynes, ignores him, and hands the ball right to him. The pass simply isn’t there, but LeBron forces it anyway.
Then there’s been the problem of execution:
In transition, James spots a wide-open Jeff Green in the corner. Naturally, he delivers the pass. But it hits Green in the feet. It’s an easy pass, and James botches hit. When degree of difficulty’s increased, even on well-conceived passes, James has been routinely off-target:
These are not easy passes. James is trying to hit really small windows. But he’s not even close. I mean, he’s hitting Al Horford in the back and the elbow. These feel like unforced errors, and you can’t afford those against a defense that forces errors as well as Boston does.
Speaking of forced errors, Marcus Smart deserves a shout out for being a psychopath, one who’s evidently fond of jump scares:
Smart, better known to his loyal followers as “Smarf,” is a lunatic, a cult hero, a way of life. He is relentless and embodies so much of what this Celtics team is. He wants to win, preferably win ugly, and when you least expect it, he’ll steal your lunch.
It does feel as if LeBron did not expect this. After Game 1, many argued that LeBron was simply feeling the Celtics out. He was messing around, flexing. His seven turnovers were evidence both that he hadn’t taken the game seriously and that the Celtics were done for once he flipped the switch.
Since, James has turned the ball over six, three, seven, and six times. The Celtics’ defense has smothered him, the impossible load he’s carried all year has weighed on him.
Now, James finds himself on the precipice of history, which should be a comfortable perch for him. But LeBron James is not used to making this type of history, the type of history that indicates he might just be mortal after all.