- Chris Broussard, NBA analyst
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BOSTON -- It ticked him off. All of it.
The questions about his toughness when it was falsely reported that he might need three MRIs for his strained right elbow. The disregard for his team's splendid 61-win regular season, after one bad loss. The idea that The King was buckling under pressure, overemphasizing his injury to create a convenient excuse for potential failure.
Well, now we know what LeBron James -- the media-friendly, quick-to-laugh, nice-guy superstar -- plays like when he's mad.
He blocks shots with such abandon that it leaves a 6-foot-9-inch, 290-pound former football player sprawled out on the floor.
He pours in points in every conceivable way, outscoring a team full of future Hall of Famers by himself.
He makes a Big Three, Gigantic Four, or whatever cute nickname folks give his opponents, look infinitesimal, smaller than the lion's face on his signature sneakers.
In a mammoth performance that put every naysayer, hater and Boston Celtic to shame, James put the Cleveland Cavaliers back in control of their postseason, leading them to a historically lopsided 124-95 victory and a 2-1 advantage in this Eastern Conference semifinal series. The margin, which Boston's Paul Pierce called "embarrassing,'' was the largest ever in a home playoff loss by the Celtics.
James' statistics, as mind-blowing as they were (38 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks), don't come close to telling the story of his dominance. This was Mike Tyson vs. Trevor Berbick. Troy Aikman's Cowboys vs. Jim Kelly's Bills. Usain Bolt vs. anybody.
"I think he's healthy,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically, taking a jab at the enormous amount of attention placed on James' elbow this past week. "His elbow looked very good tonight, and so enough with the elbow injury, all right? Now we can go ahead and everybody can just focus on basketball. He looked awful good. I mean, he was great.''
Since Monday night, James listened to almost nonstop talk about how tentative he was in Game 2, presumably because of his elbow. James admitted there was truth to the sentiment, noting that he had to take much more than the five shots he took in the first half of Monday's loss.
While James denied any ill feelings at his post-game press conference, sources close to him say he was really irked by erroneous reports that had him all but living on a hospital flatbed, waiting for a succession of MRIs. On Tuesday, coach Mike Brown mistakenly said James had an MRI during the last week of the regular season. Then, team officials said James was scheduled to have another MRI before Game 3.
Those two never happened, and truth is, James has had only one MRI on his elbow. But the notion that he'd have three in less than a month implied that the two-time MVP was soft. Naturally, he couldn't stand that.
The game was over in less than 12 minutes.
In the first quarter, James hit a turnaround jump shot; a reverse layup; a fadeaway; three conventional J's; a driving layup; a right-handed, bad-elbow reverse jam that would have scored well in the All-Star Game's dunk contest; and all five of his free throw attempts.
His solo performance was better than that of the Celtics combined, as he outscored Boston 21-17 to give the Cavs a 19-point lead. And that's not even to mention his four rebounds (to the Celtics' five).
Rivers said a big game from James was as predictable as a sellout crowd at Boston's TD Garden.
"We told our guys, 'You knew he was going to grab the ball and he was going to attack all game, especially early, to get his guys involved,'" he said. "And he did it. But I didn't think we gave any resistance, you know? I mean, he was playing H-O-R-S-E."
James said the three days in between Games 2 and 3 helped relieve the pain in his elbow, and he seemed to make a point of that on his wicked reverse dunk that he threw down with a flourish.
Not even a stunningly flagrant foul by Kendrick Perkins -- who didn't even feign going for the basketball -- on a driving fast-break layup bothered James. After the 6-10, 280-pound Perkins delivered a body blow right on James' elbow, LeBron simply stepped the line and canned the foul shots.
Eight minutes later, he made Perkins' teammate, Glen Davis, pay. After sinking a 3-pointer, James soared in for an emphatic rejection of a layup attempt by Davis. The power of James' swat sent Davis, a former high school All-American in football, flailing on the hardwood, glaring fruitlessly at the referees in hopes of a foul call.
"Aggression was my mindset,'' said James, who made 8 of 10 shots in the first quarter and 14 of 22 overall. "It was my mindset to come out really aggressive and just dictate tempo from the start of the jump."
James' teammates followed suit. After struggling in the first two games, Shaquille O'Neal scored the game's first four points and finished with 12 points and 9 rebounds. Antawn Jamison, outplayed badly by Kevin Garnett at the start of the series, supported James with 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cavs walloped Boston on the boards, grabbing 45 rebounds to the Celtics' 30. Amazingly, against one of the league's best defensive teams, Cleveland shot 59.5 percent from the field.
"He's our leader,'' Jamison said. "He was really focused coming into today in shootaround, and when he goes, we go."
The Cavaliers' coaching staff was on top of its game as well. Brown switched the 6-6 Anthony Parker onto Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who dominated Mo Williams in the first two games. Parker went under picks, forcing Rondo to take jump shots, and even picked him up full court to slow him down. Rondo still had nice stats (18 points, 8 assists), but he took more shots than any of his teammates and never really got them involved.
Mostly, like the crowd of 18,624, the Celtics stood around, hopelessly watching James release his anger and turn the attention from his elbow to his brilliance.
11hMichael C. Wright