CLEVELAND — It was more a prophecy than a prediction, but Cleveland Cavaliers coach Ty Lue has an obvious sense of what LeBron James is trying to do this year.
Even with a chance to enter the NBA’s top-10 all-time scoring list on Thursday night, James opted to set up his teammates and push the milestone to another day. He finished with 30 points, one shy of Hakeem Olajuwon’s 26,946 career total, and 12 assists.
“It’s always humbling when you’re able to put yourself in any category with the guys that laid the path for you,” James said. “It’s pretty cool.”
But initiating the Cavs’ offense, not passing a legend, was on the agenda for Thursday.
“That’s what LeBron’s been doing this season,” Lue said ahead of his team’s 128-122 victory over the Boston Celtics that pushed the Cavs to 5-0. “Not really forcing the issue offensively. We know LeBron can score the basketball, but to start the season he’s been a great facilitator for us. He can also score the basketball on any given night. You’ll probably see that also coming up.”
James followed Lue’s directive at Boston’s expense. He stretched the Celtics’ defense with eight first-half assists, including six that directly led to three-pointers. It was part of a Cavs three-point assault that shot 61% (11 for 18) from the three-point line in the first half. Kevin Love, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert were the primary beneficiaries, though his pocket-pass to Tristan Thompson set up a poster dunk over Celtic center and former Cavalier Tyler Zeller.
“It’s just the way I read and react to the game,” James said. “I did a great job in the first half of setting up my guys. Once I started to do that, a couple lanes opened up for me.”
At the start of the third quarter, James shook his defenders like Olajuwon once did as scoring became his focus. He reeled off 12 consecutive points as the Cavs’ lead grew to 80-63. The two loudest came on an alley-oop lob off the backboard courtesy of Kyrie Irving. James finished with 20 in the third and Olajuwon’s mark became more realistic.
“He says he didn’t know,” Irving said. “I brought it up to him in the locker room in saying that he needed two points. He said ‘I didn’t know.’ Yeah, he knew. He knows everything.”
Sitting on 30 points, James ultimately passed on several chances to reach the mark late in the fourth quarter – an achievement that will surely come Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers. But what’s more telling are James’ priorities. He’s always appreciated passing more than scoring, but Irving, who had 23 points, and Love, who had 26, are good enough to assume more of the scoring burden than last year. What’s more, James is willing to defer.
James has always led his team in that category throughout his entire career, but Irving is currently averaging almost six more points per game (26.8) on six more shot attempts (20.5). It might be the beginning of a new phase of James’ career arc and one that unlocks more triple-doubles throughout the season. He’s not far off the triple-double average right now at 22.4 points, 10.0 assists and 9.0 rebounds per game.
“I never thought it would be possible after obviously (Oscar Robertson) did it. You see in the game today, you see guys like Russ (Westbrook), what he’s doing every night. I’ve come close a few times,” James said. ”I’ve always told you guys I want to be a triple-threat for my team every night, and that’s scoring, rebounding and definitely getting my guys involved,” James said. “If it results in (triple-doubles) then I’m fine with that.”
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On the verge of history, LeBron James’ role with the Cavaliers is changing – USA TODAY