BOSTON — It's OK, Celtics fans.
You're forgiven for hoping that LeBron James' elbow was really hurting him badly. Praying that "The King" would be a shadow of himself, and maybe shoot a free throw or two lefty.
But, one reverse dunk later, the truth was terribly clear. LeBron's elbow would not be holding him down. He was back.
"I think he's healthy," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "His elbow looked very good tonight, so enough with the elbow injury, alright. I think he's healthy now."
After four days of being called everything from a cry-baby to a flat-out liar, and some even suggesting he was looking forward to free agency and had checked out on the Cavaliers, James had a simple response. He went off.
Looking increasingly confident, with the trademark swagger missing from Game 2 in full swing, James erupted for a game-high 38 points, and fell just short of a triple-double with eight rebounds and seven assists. That all while not hitting a single shot in the fourth quarter with the game well out of reach.
In a sport where a single player can often mean the difference in a series, James made a statement that he was not only the best player in the building last night, but that he is still the best player in the world, elbow injury or not.
"He was great," said Rivers. "He was playing 'Horse' out there. You knew it was coming. We told our guys he was going to grab the ball and was going to attack. He did, but I didn't think we gave him any resistance."
LeBron wasted no time setting the tone, turning in what was likely the play of the playoffs thus far when he soared to slam down a reverse dunk.
The elbow looked plenty healthy then, even after taking a nice shot from Kendrick Perkins while driving to the hoop that drew a flagrant foul call on Perkins.
By the time the first quarter ended, James (21 points) had outscored the entire Celtics team (17 points), and he wasn't done. On his second trip down court in the second frame, he pounded on his chest calling for a pass, received the ball and swished a 3-pointer.
"He jumped out early," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "He attacked us. We let them attack us, and continue to attack us."
The Celtics threw just about everyone available at the 260-pound (or more?) LeBron, from Paul Pierce to Ray Allen to Tony Allen and even Michael Finley for a bit. But none were even able to slow The King. They were simply witnesses.
Whether he was sticking a jumper in Ray Allen's face or putting a ball through his legs for an acrobatic layup, LeBron hardly looked like his head was in New York last night, even with rapper — and co-owner of the New Jersey Nets — Jay-Z and star wife Beyonce in attendance.
"You knew he was going to be different, especially after how he played in Game 2," said Cavs forward Antawn Jamison. "He's our leader. He was really focused coming into shootaround, and where he goes, we go. He set the tone for us at both ends."
Big Two, big flops
While LeBron may have hit his stride, it was a tough night for the Celtics' two top weapons in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
Pierce, who has struggled throughout this series, was limited to just 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting. It was his third straight tough game from the field, shooting just 5 of 17 for 13 points in Game 1 and 4 of 10 for 14 points in Game 2. He averaged 19.6 points a game in the Miami series.
"LeBron has had the assignment (to guard Pierce) the entire series," said Cleveland coach Mike Brown. "You're not going to shut down a guy like Pierce, but (LeBron) is doing a nice job of making him work every time he touches the ball."
It was an even tougher game for Allen, who shot just 2 of 9 from the field on his way to seven points. Looking tentative at times, he was just 0 of 1 from 3-point range and got to the free throw line only once. And that was on a technical.
He had scored 22 in the Game 2 win over the Cavs.
It seemed an unlikely matchup, with the Cavaliers using 6-foot-6, 215-pound forward Anthony Parker to press jet-quick 6-foot-nothing Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo would burn the slow-footed, 34-year-old Parker, right? Well, he did at times. But the journeyman managed to slow Rondo, limiting the red-hot point guard to 18 quiet points. The brother-in-law of C's reserve big man Shelden Williams, Parker added 11 points of his own.
"(Rondo) was kind of picking us apart offensively," said Brown. "And (pressing Rondo) was something that (Parker) suggested. He said, 'I'm going to pick him up, work the ball some and see what happens.' I said, great."
When the issue of the Cavaliers going to the line with far more regularity than the Celtics in the series was mentioned, Rivers snuck in a shot at his opponents.
"I think we are attacking as well," said Rivers, "but I think I'm going to have to start sending more video in (to the league office) like (the Cavaliers) are. Maybe that works."
For the third straight game, the Celtics were on the wrong end of the free throw battle. The Cavaliers shot 34 free throws for the game (making 31), including 17 in the first half. The Celtics shot 29 free throws, but only eight in the first half when the game was still in reach.
Those stats were nothing new, with Cleveland holding a major edge at the line in Game 1 (31-21) and Game 2 (38-18).
The referees also caught the ire of the Celtics fans in the first half, calling seemingly phantom fouls on Kevin Garnett, Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.
The four-day wait between Game 2 and 3 of this series was apparently not a valuable stretch for the Celtics.
"I thought we had two lousy practices," said Rivers. "I thought our preparation was pulling nails as, so, that was the result. (Last night), we were awful."
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