The Cleveland Cavaliers were rested after five days off. They were in top form, having whipped the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in four straight games. And most important, they had LeBron James, who has played in seven straight N.B.A. Finals.
Perhaps because of James’s mystique, the Cavaliers were almost 3-1 favorites in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics despite not having home court advantage. Playing on the road in Sunday’s Game 1, they were one and a half point favorites. The Celtics were not getting much respect; they had been underdogs with home court in the conference semifinals against the 76ers as well.
So how did the Cavs lose, 108-83, in Game 1?
The Cavaliers start and end with James, of course. And James had a terrible game. He scored only 15 points, lower than all but three of his 82 regular-season games. He shot 5 for 16, missed all five of his 3-point attempts, had no offensive rebounds or steals and committed seven turnovers, all playoff-worst figures for him this year.
Many observers credited the defense of Boston’s Marcus Morris for James’s rough night. During the run-up to the game, Morris had made the seemingly ill-advised move to claim he could stop James. “Personally, I think I’m probably the best guy defending him in the league, outside of Kawhi” Leonard of the Spurs, he told ESPN.
Morris joined the Celtics’ starting lineup for the first time all playoffs and wound up playing 34 minutes. It paid off. The Celtics led by 26 points by halftime, the largest playoff margin ever over a team with James.
Morris shared the praise after the game. “It’s a team effort, man, it’s not just me,” he told reporters. “Everybody played a part in guarding him. He’s obviously the best player in the game, and you need multiple guys and a team to guard him.“
James was among those who credited Morris. “I thought they had great game plan Game 1; he was the start of it,” he said. “He was my matchup, and I think they did a great job of communicating throughout the whole game.”
Defense is famously hard to measure statistically; Morris’s advanced defensive metrics are not electrifying. At 6-foot-9, he is known for his versatility and his ability to defend almost any type of player. He had helped slow James before, holding him to 19 points on Jan. 3, in another Celtics win in Boston.
But Morris also had 21 points, tying his seasonal playoff high. Jaylen Brown scored 23 and Al Horford added 20 for Boston.
Still, it’s a seven-game series. “I have zero level of concern at this stage,” James told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I didn’t go to college. So it’s not March Madness.”
James has just about always figured it out before. With Game 2 set for Tuesday, he had better start figuring.