LeBron James has sent too many franchises into hiding, sent too many stars fleeing to the opposite coast and sent too many coaches to the unemployment line to ever be viewed as a sympathetic figure. But James is human, despite what he displays as an indestructible terminator in what should be his post-prime. A viral video showing the immediate aftermath of J.R. Smith’s brain fart in Game 1 began making the rounds late Sunday night, and it revealed a despondent James seething in stunned silence and later burying his head into a towel — hurting, helpless — after coach Tyronn Lue informed him that the team had a timeout remaining.
James has probably never invested more physically and mentally into a season, the first in which he has played every game. He has dragged a Cleveland Cavaliers team into the NBA Finals that even he doubted at one point this season, only to face an organization that is responsible for giving him the Basquiat of his career in 2016 but also two of his bigger disappointments. Last year’s Finals loss left James’ reputation as the game’s best player untouched but made his desire for more team success — and more diamond-encrusted rings — less attainable after the Warriors’ addition of Kevin Durant sent competitive balance into darkness.
“It sucks to lose,” James said. “It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have and you prep and your mind is in it and your body is in it, and you come out on the losing end. But nothing would ever take the love of the game away from me. I think the love of the competition is something I live for and something I wake up every day and train my body for and train my mind for.”
As the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 3 with the Cavs down 2-0, James faces more than just his possible last stand with the Cavaliers. If he is unable to reverse the negative trends ever since Smith dribbled out the clock in a tie game and the Golden State Warriors win their third title in four years, James will be sent into an offseason needing to find another team-building model to dismantle a team that was constructed with a dynasty in mind.
The fourth installment of Cavaliers-Warriors has already presented its challenges, with the gut-wrenching overtime defeat in Game 1 and the predictable beatdown in Game 2. James has also had to contend with blurry vision in his left eye, which was made bloody after Draymond Green raked him across the face in Game 1. James might have some problems seeing the floor now, but he’s always had a vision for his future that exceeds any shortsighted plans observers might have for him. Having Kyrie Irving in Boston instead of attacking Stephen Curry in pick-and-rolls is another element that makes James’ challenge more insurmountable this year. Because while you can look at the Cavaliers’ roster, spot an All-Star in Kevin Love and decide this team is better than the group James led to two wins in the 2015 Finals, you look over at the Warriors and see, “Oh yeah, they have Durant now.”
“Golden State is one of the best teams I’ve ever played. It’s one of the best teams that’s ever been assembled,” James said. “Then they added Kevin Durant. So then what does that do to them? It makes them even more dangerous and even more powerful and great. For me as a competitor, it’s fun. It’s truly fun to know when I’m done playing the game of basketball to know that I played against some of the greatest teams that ever played, ever been assembled. And this is one of them.”
Before this series began, James said the Warriors “will have a nice chapter” in his sure-to-be-best-selling biography. That chapter would be even more compelling if James were to pull the unthinkable once again. What most are anticipating, however, is what the next chapter will include for James. Bringing another superstar with him to guide the Los Angeles Lakers’ young core? Hoping GM Daryl Morey can perform some salary-cap alchemy and add him to Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston? Join Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — Shaq-and-Penny 2.0 — in Philadelphia? Or just stay home and pursue a statistical quest for G.O.A.T. status that ends with the three rings he’s already won.
No scenario is particularly appealing nor sets him to immediately challenge the Warriors, which makes the guessing game more intriguing than previous Julys when James was plotting his future. The Warriors are attempting to become the first team to defeat James in the postseason three times. The other teams that have already beaten him twice — Boston and San Antonio — had arguably the greatest influence on his game and his team-building strategies.
James surmised that forming a “Big Three” would be the best way to take out the Celtics and collect championship rings. Teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010 forever changed the power players had in determining their own fate. Why wait for an organization to assemble a competitive roster when you can build your own? His run with the Heat ended sooner than expected and came up short of a lasting dynasty after the Spurs smoked them in 2014. That defeat sent James back home to Cleveland, where he latched on to an established young star, then used some of the other talent the Cavaliers had acquired while he was in South Beach to get Love and other veteran help. Problem was, James constructed a team intent on beating the Spurs, not one that could handle a sharp-shooting backcourt no one saw as a serious threat coming out of the Bay.
The Warriors’ unexpected rise to superpower disrupted what James had intended to build in Cleveland. James’ slight miscalculation didn’t keep him from fulfilling his promise of a title, as he benefited from a Green lapse to destroy the dreams of a 73-win team. But that success only complicated his union with Irving. Once Durant burned down everything, Irving no longer saw the benefit of sacrificing in pursuit of LeBron’s rings and his frustration with being viewed as a “LeBronaire” led him to force his way out last summer.
James didn’t need Irving to continue his reign over the Eastern Conference. The East has been inferior for years, and James has only faced one first-team All-NBA player in his past 24 series in the conference. But being able to look at 14 teams for eight straight years and say, “Mine,” is nothing to be ignored. Though he needed two Game 7s to escape this postseason, James cemented his status as a one-man title contender who needs just enough help to pull out wins. That might work against Indiana, Toronto and Boston (without its two best players) but hasn’t worked against Golden State just yet. Whatever James elects to do, he’ll need superstar assistance, particularly on the perimeter, fewer one-dimensional role players, and another playmaker or two to give himself any chance of ending the Warriors’ reign, as he has so many other organizations. James can mask the flaws and shortcomings of lesser teammates and summon more otherworldly powers. But the long-term limitations of that strategy are obvious, especially given James’ advancing age.
Golden State pushed the NBA out of the Big Three era and into a Big Four period, forcing the rest of the league to get better or retreat. James appears incapable of the latter, which makes his pursuit of the former more fascinating. Until he finds the answer, James will remain the player fans will push to succeed while expressing their sympathies when, and if, he comes up short. This series is far from over — Cleveland has come back to win two of the past three series it has trailed 2-0 — and the Warriors have learned the folly in doubting a desperate James.
“The odds have been against me since, I don’t know, since I was 5, 6 years old. So we’re talking about basketball here. The odds have been stacked up against me since I was an adolescent,” James said. “I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship. It’s my job to make sure that we’re as focused, laser focused as possible, do my job, and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”
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