SAN ANTONIO – His feet buried in a tub of ice, LeBron James laid the final stats sheet between his feet, lowered his head and studied those numbing numbers. The residue of a Game 1 flop left him silent and seething in the losing locker room. At any moment, you still expected one of those San Antonio Spurs defenders to come rushing through the door and dive into his water.
"He'll find a way to adjust," a Cleveland Cavaliers official whispered in the corner. "He always does."
The Cavaliers are no longer in the Eastern Conference. They are no longer with the lightweights of the league. James studied that sheet in the silence of Cleveland's locker room, but there was no refuge for King James. His NBA finals debut had been a downright disaster at the AT&T Center, and he just sat there, silently, lost in a stat line that left him misguided on 12 of 16 shots and saddled with six turnovers in an 85-76 loss to San Antonio on Thursday night.
The Spurs would start with the best defender in the league, Bruce Bowen, and Tim Duncan would sprint out, and then Robert Horry, and sometimes there were three San Antonio defenders shadowing James. LeBron didn't make a basket until midway through the third quarter, as the Spurs made him dribble side to side, never north and south. They trapped him and made him pass the ball to his startled teammates. No more layups, no more dunks, no more dysfunctional Pistons surrendering paths to the rim.
These Spurs constitute the best defense in basketball, with Bowen on the ball and Duncan protecting the basket. Gregg Popovich has made up his mind that he's going to make the likes of Donyell Marshall, Sasha Pavlovic and Larry Hughes beat San Antonio. That isn't happening, and that's the reason the Spurs are destined to dispose of the Cavaliers in short order.
San Antonio is treating James with the ultimate respect and his teammates with, well, the ultimate disrespect.
"Allen Iverson was the only other guy I can remember doing something like that for," Horry said. "LeBron is the head of that snake and we need to cut that head off and just keep going after him."
The NBA desperately needs James to make a stand in these finals, or the television audience promises to bail without a moment's notice. The Spurs are a purist's delight but a marketing nightmare. This is no series unless James makes it one. He'll never feel as alone with these Cavs as he will over the next 48 hours because, deep down, James understands this pedestrian cast of characters can't force San Antonio to respect them. The Spurs will keep coming for James, coming and coming, until someone else on the floor makes shots.
LeBron kept trying to find his teammates in Game 1 because that's what he does. Still, the openings on the floor were pure illusion. San Antonio has an ability to be everywhere, crowding you here but still recovering over there.
"I tried to force a lot of passes in there that looked open at times but really (weren't)," James said. "I have to play better for us to win."
For now, the Cavaliers need to concentrate on competing. They need to show that they belong on the floor with the three-time champion Spurs. In so many ways, Cleveland is exposed in the NBA finals now. This isn't an indictment of the franchise, nor James, nor its fine young coach, Mike Brown. The Cavs made it out of the East in a season when that side of the league had never been so pitiful. Perhaps James is prepared for this stage at 22 years old, but the rest of this team hasn't been constructed to completion. No one considered this a championship contender, and yet, Cleveland is here. However, the Cavaliers are completely overmatched everywhere on the floor.
For Game 1, anyway, that included LeBron James.
"Superman doesn't just turn into Clark Kent in one game," Brent Barry warned in the Spurs' locker room, and he's right. James is smart, and he'll find a way to get his game going. But this incessant talk of Cleveland pressing the magic "adjustments" button for the rest of the series happens to be wishful thinking.
"You have one off-night, but the thing is that it's not the NCAA tournament where you have one game and you're out," James said.
Yes, the Cavaliers kept telling themselves that this will be a long series. They'll study some tape, make some changes and come back for Game 2 on Sunday. They can watch it all, but it doesn't change the truth. This was no accident on Thursday night. The Spurs took James out of the ball game, chased and crowded him like they dared to almost anyone else in the NBA.
So, no, this isn't the Eastern Conference anymore, and all LeBron James had to do was take a long look at those teammates trying to beat the great San Antonio Spurs. He had to know that there's nothing to adjust when you're so hopelessly overmatched.