OAKLAND, Calif. – This felt like the last stand of LeBron James, the last stand of these Cleveland Cavaliers or at least that's how LeBron appeared to be approaching it – now or never, even if, technically, it wasn't.
Two and a half hours before tip of Game 5 of these NBA Finals and there LeBron was, getting up extra jumpers on the Oracle Arena floor, a significant departure from routine. He might not have done that five times all season, a Cleveland source said.
At the opening tip, there was LeBron, ball in his hands on nearly every possession, everything running through him, passes, rebounds, shots, play calls, everything, the star trying to will this raggedy supporting cast to make it happen. And at the end – 40 points, 11 assists and 14 rebounds later – there was LeBron, seated dejectedly on the bench, the scoreboard reading Golden State 104, Cleveland 91, so out of hand he was pulled to rest for future battles.
He finally rose slowly and walked off the court even as the final seconds were still running down and the victory streamers were beginning to fall. He'd scored or assisted on 70 of the Cavs' 91 points and it wasn't enough.
The NBA Finals aren't over. Golden State is merely up 3-2 with a trip to Ohio for Game 6 on Tuesday. But, man, what's left? What's next?
"We have enough," LeBron said. "I'm confident."
Then what's the solution to a one-man-force-of-nature running into a group of Warriors who have figured it out? More LeBron? Better LeBron? Neither seems possible.
Sunday it was LeBron and LeBron and LeBron. He was absolutely brilliant, absolutely commanding, absolutely playing the game about as well as it can be played, except in the end Cleveland absolutely lost, convincingly.
Hand him the Finals MVP, just the second for a player on a losing team (Jerry West, 1969), and marvel at how far he took this team. The series is a 4-0 sweep without him, a bore rather than something commanding massive TV ratings. Curry got the regular-season MVP, but this was a reminder, no matter how many step-back threes Steph drains, we know who the alpha dog of the league still is.
"I feel confident because I'm the best player in the world," LeBron said.
If the best player in the world had anything around him, maybe this is different. James has repeatedly said the most intense challenge of his career came during the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, when his Miami Heat were down 3-2 and facing a trip to Boston, with the season, and the entire "taking-my-talents-to-South-Beach" experiment on the line.
He went into the game with a focus and a mindset rarely seen. He would concede to no man, neither teammate nor opponent. He wasn't going to allow failure to happen.
He went off for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists and Miami won going away, never again looking back en route to the title. This was that same type of intensity, of focus, of control. This was LeBron trying to kick down the door. He played, perhaps, an even better game on Sunday yet it wasn't close to enough.
He should've had 16, 17 assists, if only guys hit open shots. There were clanked jumpers. There was hesitation. There were repeated passes directly under the hoop that somehow failed. After one botched possession, LeBron motioned to Tristan Thompson that when he is that close to the basket he shouldn't put the ball on the floor and allow the defense to collapse. He even mimicked taking the ball immediately up. It was a scene out of LeBron James Skills Academy for high school kids. Thompson could only nod.
"Should I expect more than 40 and a triple-double?" coach David Blatt asked about what more James could do.
LeBron said he was far from perfect. Shooting 15 of 34 (44.1 percent) wasn't ideal, but again, there is no viable second option, so he has to force shots. The rest of the team was 17 of 47 (36.2 percent). His other four starters combined for just 34 points, 15 rebounds and four assists. That's four men – all together.
An attempt to match Golden State's small-ball approach meant 7-footer Timofey Mozgov couldn't stay on the floor on Sunday. Yet Cleveland's little guys managed just three fast-break points.
Everything has to come through the half court, LeBron either shooting or passing or managing the offense. Everything now is like pulling a tractor through the mud. Uphill.
Stephen Curry (37 points, including 17 backbreakers in the fourth) is no longer floating through these Finals. Matthew Dellavendova (2 of 9 for five points) is no longer playing like Stephen Curry, or even Curry's twin in that insurance commercial.
Stealing games doesn't seem to be working anymore. Playing harder and tougher is no longer possible, not after Draymond Green lit a fire under the Warriors.
LeBron could only say he needed to do more, like Boxer the horse in "Animal Farm" clinging to the belief that additional labor can solve all problems.
"I gave up two offensive rebounds," James said. "I had a couple of turnovers, a couple miscues defensively."
Other than that …
"I've got to do better," he said. "I know I'm shouldering a lot of the burden, but it is what it is."
The longer a series goes, the more likely the best team wins. It's why upsets are so rare in the NBA. Golden State is, without question, the best team. LeBron is the best player. When some of his teammates rose up and Golden State sunk down, Cleveland could win. When that doesn't happen, you have all-time greatness, only of the finest performances imaginable, muted by a double-digit defeat.
LeBron arrived here Sunday ready and rested. He went to see "Jurassic World." His legs felt good. He took the early bus to the arena and gunned up threes. His focus was all encompassing.
This was going to be 2012 in Boston again. He was going to make this Cleveland's Game 7, do or die. Win now, win here, then close the whole thing out Tuesday and steal the title. That's how it felt.
It wasn't close to enough. He'll work harder, be better.
"I put no ceiling on my game."
That's what LeBron said. That's the plan. Whether he still believes it, is the question.