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CLEVELAND – The King had been hit across the arm, causing him to stumble and fumble into a row of courtside cameramen, where head eventually met metal. Now there was a hushed crowd and cops pushing folks and a white towel collecting LeBron James’ red blood.
It wasn’t a dirty play by any stretch of the imagination. It was a purposeful one though.
Andrew Bogut had noted that Cleveland was playing an East Coast style in this series, and that, he promised, was fine by him; LeBron wasn’t going to get to the rim so easy. For all the flash and flare of Golden State, it has some Warriors too, guys not happy about being not just outplayed, but out-toughed by the Cavs.
So here was LeBron, trying to stop the bleeding off his own dome and up on the scoreboard where Golden State had already collected a lead it would never relinquish.
Here was LeBron, watching everything he and the Cavs had clawed and fought for, everything they had willed and won in this series, disappear all at once.
Golden State 103, Cleveland 82, NBA Finals squared at two, and here was LeBron rationalizing it, minimizing it, coping with it by claiming “it’s just basketball,” and that Game 5 Sunday in Oakland isn’t even the most pressurized moment of his career, still ranking below taking Miami into Boston for Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.
None of that was probably what Cleveland fans wanted to hear, but at this point what else is he going to say? It was after 1 a.m. ET, he looked exhausted after three games in five days and he noted he had stitches and a “slight headache” courtesy of that camera.
“I don’t really get involved in it, the whole thing,” James said of whether he senses the excitement, the pressure, the desperate expectations around this championship-starved town. “I understand how important this city is and what I mean to this city and what our team means to the city, but I don’t get caught up in it. I just try to go out and play my game. I try to lead the best way I can, and if I can put my team and my franchise in a position to win the title, I’m grateful for that.”
These were words that didn’t match his actions, which across four games has been an exercise in balled-up fists and hometown pride and prodigal son expectations. He’s just kept coming and coming and coming, but Thursday he ran into a wall, or a camera, or just a better team with a far slimmer margin for error.
There is nothing here that suggests Cleveland should win the NBA title … other than LeBron’s nightly shows of force. The rest of the team is a collection of parts that can’t function without him. Someone asked him about possible lineup changes and he could barely contain a laugh.
“We don’t have many options,” he noted of an injury-riddled team that is barely seven deep.
When James takes a one-to-two-minute break to start the fourth quarter, Golden State keeps crushing the Cavs; nearly coming back Tuesday night, putting this one effectively away on Thursday. The Warriors quickly rebuilt a double-digit lead that Cleveland could never counter until the once-amped-up crowd left early. Not that LeBron could blame the fans.
“I mean, I came out of the game as well early,” he said. “So we were on the same page.”
This was gallows humor and it was probably fitting. No one should suggest he’s giving up or has lost faith, but there’s also a reality to the situation. He wasn’t brooding over this defeat. He walked out of the Q joking with his crew of advisers and Nike execs. He looked in desperate need of a day off. Or Kyrie Irving to magically heal.
There’s a reason that Cleveland winning this would be one of the finest accomplishments in NBA history. It isn’t supposed to be easy, not when even 30 seconds on the bench is like watching a horror show.
“Well, I was hoping our team could buy me a few minutes,” LeBron said.
“I mean, it’s difficult,” he said. “You want to be out there, but also you want to be effective. …I was gassed out.”
Golden State kept throwing bodies at him. This wasn’t completely new. Steve Kerr has rotated a slew of defenders all series, hoping that a week or so of body blows weakens James by the end. Maybe it’s working. Thursday there were more double teams, more hard fouls that got James trying to work the refs and getting out of his game. He went for 20 points, 12 boards and eight assists, but he probably needs 40-12-8 to win. And the physical stuff wasn’t just on James.
Stephen Curry pushed Matthew Dellavedova as they headed to a timeout. David Lee got into it a little with Tristan Thomson after a hard foul. No, these weren’t the Bad Boy Pistons, but for Golden State it was something, at least something more than they’d shown across the first three games
“The one thing we’ve been preaching the whole series is we wanted to wear them down,” said Golden State’s Draymond Green, the bruiser out of Michigan State who earned all five of his fouls.
Was it fatigue that did in Cleveland, or just a return to norm for a group of role players? J.R. Smith went 2 for 12 and when asked to assess the current state of his game was succinct and accurate.
“Horses---,” he said.
Then he got on his new PhunkeeDuck motorized scooter – sort of like a handle-less Segway. He said Jamie Foxx gave it to him and he might be the first NBA player to own one (it’s been all over the Instagram feeds of some rappers and R&B stars, he noted). Since he just got it Thursday, he figured he’d bring it to the game and joked it was a good way to rest his legs. Then he rode it out of the postgame locker room.
This is who LeBron has to count on.
Storylines shift with the results in these series. Narratives flip on a single result. It’s never wise to get too caught up in the back and forth. Forty-eight hours ago the Cavs were in Golden State’s head. Now they aren’t.
After a 4-of-27 3-point shooting performance, after Delly dropped back to earth (3-of-14 from the field), after bleeding heads and aggressive double teams, it’s clear that, as Green put it, this series is indeed a “street fight.”
No one has swung harder or more often than LeBron James. He’s the one that made this special. Yet four games into it nothing has been earned, nothing has been gained, nothing has been won. That championship rock still lies at the bottom of Cleveland’s hill.
“It’s the biggest stage in the world,” LeBron said. “But I don’t put too much added pressure on myself about basketball. It’s just … that’s all it is. It is just basketball.”
The NBA Finals are dead even. Its star looked dead tired.