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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the Cavaliers’ huge win over the Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals and what to expect in a pivotal Game 4.
USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND – Offense doesn’t come easy in the NBA playoffs.

Cleveland superstar LeBron James only makes it look that way sometimes, and with his superior passing skills, he did just that in Cleveland’s 116-86 victory over Boston in Game 3 on Saturday.

James had 27 points on an efficient 8-for-12 shooting, but it was his 12 assists that had Boston’s flummoxed.

Textbook assists. Creative assists. Difficult assists. Some were passes coaches would recommend a player not make. But James is not most players.

Those 12 assists led to 30 points, all on dunks/layups and three-pointers.

Early, it was apparent James planned to pick apart Boston with his passing: a cross-court pass by three defenders to George Hill for a three-pointer one minute, 44 seconds into the first quarter. Midway through the first quarter, he found J.R. Smith for a three-pointer.

Then, he started finding crevices in Boston’s interior defense: an under-handed bounce pass with his left hand between two defenders to Larry Nance Jr. for a dunk; a sky hook pass to Nance for an alley-oop dunk; a falling-down left-handed bounce pass to Tristan Thompson for a dunk – after James baited the Celtics into a double-team.

And when Boston began tightening the lane, he started delivering passes to Smith, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver for three-pointers.

“It’s something that he’s been great at his whole career,” Love said, “and he’s finding us.”

He threw one pass — while driving to his left – to J.R. Smith on the right wing for a three-pointer.

“There’s only one person that can make passes going to his left like that in the league,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

James had so many passes going to his left or with his left hand that Stevens could have been talking about a number of passes.

James uses the phrase “on time, on target” to describe how he likes to pass the basketball. He wants to the ball to arrive when the shooter is open and ready to shoot.

“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 9.”

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This kind of passing is nothing new for James. Saturday was his sixth game with at least 11 assists this postseason. But he hadn’t dominated with his passing like he did in Game 3.

 

Cleveland is at its best when it’s making defensive stops and creating turnovers, and Boston missed shots and turned the ball over in Game 3. That allows the Cavaliers’ offense to put pressure on a defense that hasn’t had time to set up with James in attack mode. It opens up Cleveland’s pick-and-roll game and three-point shooting, and James and his teammates benefit.

“He’s the best in the game at facilitating,” Love said.

James has always been a terrific and willing passer. From an early age, he was taught to make the right play, even if that meant a pass over taking a shot. He has played that way for his career, and it’s why he’s the only player in NBA history with at least 30,000 career points, 8,000 career assists and 8,000 rebounds – a combination of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone.

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By the time his career is over, he could be the only player in the top three in career points and assists.

He’s already the all-time leading playoff scorer and is No. 3 all-time on the playoff assist list, behind John Stockton and Magic Johnson. He is going to pass Stockton within the next two postseasons.

Boston made offense difficult for James in the first two games.

James made it look easy in Game 3.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.