BOSTON (CBS) — LeBron James praise has been in overdrive across the NBA world during the last couple days, and for good reason. He’s led an undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers squad to a two games-to-one series lead over one of the best regular season teams in recent memory.
LeBron’s individual numbers have been jaw dropping: he’s posted a phenomenal 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in the Finals thus far. He’s also played 142 out of a possible 154 minutes. His usage rate is a sky-high 44 percent, meaning nearly one out of every two Cavs possessions has concluded with a LeBron shot or free throw.
Much of the credit LeBron has received thus far is deserved. He’s put an incredible onus on his back during this postseason run with his hometown team, and it’s paid off to this point in impressive fashion. However, the focus on what LeBron has done in this series should not overshadow how well Cleveland’s supporting cast has been playing.
With supporting stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined, Cavs head coach David Blatt has had to tighten his bench rotation and play with no real backup big man option.
The absence of Irving and Love, two of Cleveland’s weaker defenders, has allowed for the Cavs to morph into a defensive juggernaut against the NBA’s best offense this season. LeBron has been a part of that equation, but he’s had plenty of his own struggles on that end of the floor, as pointed out by Michael Pina of Sports on Earth earlier this week in a column written after Game 1.
Nitpicking LeBron’s defensive mistakes feels haughty. He exerts so much energy, and Cleveland would crumble without him. But James still cost the Cavs a few key baskets in Game 1. One too many times he was caught ball-watching or failed to hustle on a close out. Sometimes he drifted off his man to help elsewhere, forgetting just how deadly the Golden State Warriors are when trying to score.
This trend has continued in the past couple games, but LeBron’s teammates have helped to cover up some of those miscues and stifle the Warriors. Matthew Dellavedova has been at the forefront of that effort, sticking like glue to Stephen Curry for 40-plus minutes a night.
Tristan Thompson is averaging over 43 minutes per game in this series and continues to best the Warriors frontline on the glass (13.7 rebounds per game in Finals), as he did during the Celtics series. Thompson is also holding his own on the perimeter when being forced to guard smaller players following switches.
Iman Shumpert is bringing back memories of his play against the Celtics in the 2013 Playoffs when the then-Knick was a thorn in Paul Pierce’s side on the defensive end. The swingman has prevented wings Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes from finding their shooting grooves, keeping the Warriors offense out of sorts with their MVP struggling.
Timofey Mozgov has been a steady anchor in the middle of the Cavs defense as well, thwarting a cold-shooting Golden State team from making forays into the paint with plays like this:
The collective stats might not be impressive for this quartet, but make no mistake about the group’s ability. Even without LeBron, this squad would not be the lottery team in the Eastern Conference that so many pundits have claimed. Players like Thompson and Mozgov are better than anyone the Celtics have on their roster right now, and they are shining bright now on the world’s biggest stage.
If LeBron wants to finish the fairy tale ending in his return to Cleveland on a positive note, the performance of his supporting cast will be just as pivotal as his own stellar play. It’s time for the rest of the NBA world to take note.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.