Puskas: Cavs let Celtics impose their will

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Ed Puskas

The Cavaliers are LeBron James’ team.

No other NBA franchise’s identity is so tied to the personality and performance of its best player. In fact, it almost seems laughably redundant to refer to James that way.

Try it with me:

LeBron James is the Cavaliers’ best player?

You don’t say?

It is obvious that James is the Cavaliers when he is posting a line of 40-12-10 and playing every last second.

And it is just as apparent that as LeBron goes, so go the Cavs when he isn’t entirely engaged and seems all too willing to go passive, let the game come to him and see what happens.

The Boston Celtics’ 108-83 romp over the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals was a textbook example of what can happen when passive LeBron allows the game to run through someone else.

That someone else usually becomes the other team, because James’ supporting cast so takes its cues from him that they almost fall into becoming spectators instead of instigators when he abdicates the role of basketball lightning rod.

We saw it in Game 1 of the Cavaliers’ first-round series, when the more aggressive Indiana Pacers took control early and blew James and his teammates off the floor.

By the fourth quarter, LeBron literally was off the floor, watching the Pacers finish a laugher. The same thing happened Sunday when James, Love and J.R. Smith watched Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic and Jose Calderon mop up in garbage time.

And lost in the euphoria of a second-round sweep of Toronto was the fact Cleveland followed a similar script in the opener up north. The Raptors led throughout regulation, but somehow allowed the Cavaliers to force overtime and steal a game they had no business winning.

Boston didn’t allow that. The Celtics may not have the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but Brad Stevens is arguably the best head coach in the NBA, and his cast of role players embrace the little things.

The Celtics didn’t settle for off-balance jumpers as the shot clock was winding down. They went to the basket hard and fast, beating the passive Cavaliers off the dribble.

They defended on the ball early in possessions, refusing to allow James and the Cavs to get into any kind of rhythm.

The Celtics wanted that opener, and they took it. What is difficult to accept is the extent to which James and the Cavaliers let them do it.

But that’s what sometimes happens when LeBron forgets that he alone can put the Cavs on his back, impose his will on the court and get inside the other team’s collective head.

The good news for Cleveland is that when James is on your team, it is almost impossible to lose a series in Game 1. He almost always responds with a vengeance after a game like the Cavs had Sunday.

When LeBron is himself, the little things — defense, boxing out and making open shots — seem to come easier for the Cavs as a group. So do the wins.

You just wish it happened all the time, which is the weight of the great expectations that come when one player so defines a team’s identity.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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