CLEVELAND - The Cavaliers trailed the Celtics 0-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, and the assumption heading into Game 3 was LeBron James would score 40 or more points and will his team back into the series.
James dropped 12 and 12, instead. That's 12 shots as part of a 27-point performance and 12 assists that fueled a 116-86 blowout win for Cleveland at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday.
In that regard, Game 3 was a statement. James flipped the script on Boston by leading an effort in which the Cavs shot 48.7 percent from the floor and 17-of-34 from 3-point range. Six Cleveland players scored in double figures, a number that matched Boston's team effort in Game 2. James is even more effective when he's this efficient, especially with the passing. This was quietly one of the best playoff games of his career, and it sets up a huge Game 4.
Cleveland was sharp both on the court and during postgame media conferences. James wore a buttoned-up jean jacket while Love sported a denim button-up shirt. James was asked to elaborate on that pinpoint passing.
"I think my passing is up there with every other aspect of my game," James said. "It was something I kind of just knew I had when I first started playing the game of basketball, to be able to see things develop before they actually developed. Then it was on me to kind of put the ball on time, on target to my teammates ever since I was a kid, and I started playing at age nine."
Love was asked to quantify what it means when James gets everyone involved.
"Oh, he's the best in the game at facilitating," Love said. "You see 12 assists tonight, but even in games where we struggled to have ball movement, we struggled to get the ball from side to side, which is something that we looked at in Games 1 and 2, he's still able to get it done."
James has five 40-point games in the 2018 NBA playoffs, but he also has six games with 12 or more assists. His effort Saturday helped trigger an early 13-0 run in which the Cavs took control. It continued for most of the game.
While the viral passes that led to easy scores for Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson get more attention - James was asked to detail several of those assists - it's the fundamental passes on 3-point shots Cleveland coach Ty Lue noticed.
James assisted on five 3-pointers, including first-quarter shots by George Hill and JR Smith. They set the tone for two guards who had struggled in the first two games of the series. James would find Smith again in the second quarter. He also found Kyle Korver, who made all four of his attempts from 3-point range, and Love, who scored 13 points.
"When guys are open, he wants to make sure they have it right in their shooting pocket to get their shot off. You could see that with Korver tonight," Lue said. "You could see it with JR. Kevin had a few that he missed that he normally makes. But he really prides himself on passing on time, on target."
All this led to a much-needed blowout win for Cleveland; Boston coach Brad Stevens repeatedly referred to the opponent's performance as "connected." James' teammates are paying it forward. Love recounted the highlight-reel play we're used to seeing, the one on a backdoor pass to James that led to a reverse windmill dunk. Love wasn't sure if it would be a highlight-reel play for James; he has so many.
But Love was quick to say it would be one for him.
"He's always cutting and I'm always looking for them," Love said. "So I just tried to give him a little bit of love back because he had, like I mentioned, those 12 assists tonight, and a couple of them were to me."
James might be called upon to score 40 again in the series, but connected efforts like Saturday's game have become the norm through his seven consecutive NBA Finals appearances. James only had three 40-point playoff games in Miami. The Game 3 version of him is the recipe Cleveland should try to tap into again for Game 4.
This is the most dangerous version of James, the one that is staying ahead of the game.
"I think if you look at any box score throughout the postseason or throughout the regular season, if you're able to get four, five, six guys in double figures, most of the time that team is going to win," James said, citing that Love, Hill and Jordan Clarkson all had double-digit shot attempts. "Obviously every game doesn't work out that way. We can sit up here and say why doesn't it happen like that every game, but it's just not how the game works every game.
"But tonight was good ingredients of that for us to be able to get everybody involved."
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