CLEVELAND – Stuffed in the corner of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room, LeBron James sat alone, wearing nothing but oversized gym shorts and a white towel draped over his face.
His hands rested on top of his head. Each knee was wrapped in ice. Each foot sat in a bucket of freezing water.
He wanted a chance to think. Other than a couple brief hugs from his teammates, everyone obliged.
It should surprise no one that James was beaten down – physically, mentally, emotionally and, most painfully, on the scoreboard 105-97 in Game 6 of these NBA Finals, losing the series 4-2 to the Golden State Warriors, who were outside, in his house, spraying champagne.
He’d hauled an undermanned team here, deep into June, six games into the Finals, like few, if any, ever had. It wasn’t enough.
“If I could have given more, I would have given it,” he said later.
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There were 40-point games and 50-minute nights and triple-doubles and that violent celebratory spike back in Oakland and waves of Warriors trying to wear him out. He did so much he led both teams in total points, rebounds and assists, so much that he garnered four of the 11 votes for Finals MVP despite losing.
How great was LeBron in this series? The Warriors’ Andre Iguodala, who started not a single game all regular season, got the other seven votes and the Finals MVP trophy mainly because he was the most effective in slowing him, or whatever you call it when a guy still averages 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists for a series.
“Well,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said, “guarding LeBron James is the hardest job in basketball.”
All of that was meaningless at this point. All of it was nothing.
The bitter end for the triumphant return was just the bitter end. LeBron’s legs were dead, his shot short. He put up 32, 18 and nine on Tuesday, but he was 13 of 33 from the floor. He was finally pulled from the game with 10.6 seconds left, took a tour of the court and shook everyone’s hand.
Finally, there was this scene, frozen feet headed into a long summer where reality sets in: This was never going to be easy and it may get harder still.
James, as much as anyone, always knew that. Even that dream team he helped assemble in Miami had to fight and claw for a couple of titles.
Still, there was always the hope that he could write an uplifting story, that he could join up with Kyrie Irving and lure Kevin Love and find the role players and steal a title in a transitional year. The plan to return home was to do just that. Cleveland mortgaged the future to win it now, trading away Andrew Wiggins for Love and now there still is nothing to show for it.
“For me, it’s never a success if you go out losing,” James said.
Not that it didn’t almost work, even with Anderson Varejao lost to injury in the regular season, Love early in the playoffs and finally Irving early in these Finals.
“That’s a lot of talent sitting in suits,” LeBron conceded.
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LeBron likes to call himself just a kid from Akron, Ohio, so he knows this is Cleveland, back in Cleveland, back with the pressure of 51 years and counting of a championship drought hanging over everything. Earlier in this series he bowed to a courtside Jim Brown, the ultimate respect for the one Cleveland great who delivered it all.
LeBron is supposed to be next. It just wasn’t going to be now.
“It just wasn’t our time,” he said.
“When you fall short, it hurts and it eats at you,” he continued. “And it hurts me to know that I wish I could have done better and done more and just put a little bit more effort or whatever the case may be to help us get over the hump.”
At his postgame news conference he spoke with circular logic, his mood shifting by the sentence. There was everything from praising the Warriors and Iguodala to lamenting the injuries and bad luck to trying to paint a positive on the entire journey to even questioning whether it was worth it, whether the pain of coming so close, giving so much, is just too much to bear.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I’ve missed the playoffs twice. I’ve lost the Finals four times [with two championships]. I’m almost starting to be like, ‘I’d rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in the Finals.’ It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn’t make the playoffs and I didn’t have a shot at it.
“But then I look back and I start thinking about how fun it is to compete during the playoffs and the first round and the second round and the Eastern Conference finals.”
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He isn’t going to start trying to miss the playoffs. It’s just everything was so raw, so real. LeBron is 30, still in his prime, better than ever, as good as anyone ever, and the mission remains the same.
Win it all. Win it all for Cleveland. If he wanted it easy, he could have stayed in Miami. He chose this. This chose him.
“If I’m lucky enough to get here again,” he said, “it will be fun to do it.”
With Love capable of leaving via free agency, who knows what next year brings? Irving will heal. Varejao, too. The supporting cast will still be what it is, though. It’ll be up to LeBron to lure more talent, to ramp this up again, to raise his level of play.
He once bailed on his hometown to piece together a super team in Florida and was roundly criticized for it. Then he came back to finish what he started and opinions softened.
This was supposed to be a fairy tale. It turned into a Cleveland Story, the kind LeBron wants to rewrite for good.
“Did I win?” LeBron said. “I didn’t win.”
He didn’t win. In the end, with the ice wraps and ice buckets, that’s all that mattered, all that counted underneath that season-ending towel.