James needs to be at his best in Fi­nals

Cava­liers will go for first ti­tle, but they’re banged up against fa­vored War­riors.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Mike Bres­na­han

OAK­LAND — It’s June again, time for the an­nual tra­di­tion of LeBron James on your TV for four to seven games.

James is in the NBA Fi­nals a fifth con­sec­u­tive year, his ZIP Code no­tably chang­ing, but his ap­pear­ances still as com­mon as June blos­soms.

He has no chance, how­ever, against the Golden State War­riors. None. Just lis­ten to the Cleve­land Cava­liers’ crit­ics.

James is in­jured. So is Kyrie Irv­ing. And done-for the-sea­son Kevin Love.

He can’t win with the er­ratic Iman Shumpert. And the even more er­ratic J.R. Smith.

Who’s their cen­ter again? Oh. Ti­mofey Moz­gov.

Odd­s­mak­ers have made Golden State a 2-1 fa­vorite to win the se­ries that be­gins

Thurs­day, the War­riors fin­ish­ing 14 games bet­ter than Cleve­land in the regular sea­son and hold­ing that “team of des­tiny” look so far in the play­offs.

All the at­ten­tion con­tin­u­ally lobbed at James by op­po­nents, the me­dia and every­body else could be “suf­fo­cat­ing,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr re­cently told re­porters.

James, though, has re­sponded to ev­ery­thing more suc­cinctly than ever.

His statis­tics are off the charts, with av­er­ages of 30.3 points, 11 re­bounds and 9.3 as­sists against At­lanta in the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals. His team might be fall­ing apart around him — Irv­ing is hob­bled by knee ten­dini­tis and missed half of the East fi­nals — but James might be play­ing the best bas­ket­ball of his ca­reer.

His most im­por­tant critic thinks so.

“If you put ev­ery­thing in one bot­tle, this is prob­a­bly the best I’ve been,” James told re­porters.

James has played 101 play­off games over the last five years, es­sen­tially adding an­other en­tire sea­son-plus of wear and tear. Two of his four Miami years ended with cham­pi­onships, the other two with losses to San An­to­nio last sea­son (no sur­prise) and Dal­las (sur­prise!).

He rarely ref lects on it but at 30 he sat out eight games be­fore mid­sea­son to rest knee and back in­juries.

Not that old-school peo­ple want to hear about the toll so many play­off games can take on the body, even though James is the first star to ap­pear in five con­sec­u­tive Fi­nals since Bill Rus­sell with Bos­ton in the 1960s.

“No, you’re play­ing bas­ket­ball,” said Hous­ton Coach Kevin McHale, who played in four con­sec­u­tive Fi­nals with Bos­ton in the 1980s. “The phys­i­cal toll was when you saw your pops come home from work­ing in the mines ev­ery sin­gle day. Be­lieve me, ev­ery sin­gle day I played bas­ket­ball was a bless­ing, and they paid you for it.”

McHale wasn’t specif­i­cally talk­ing about James, more about long play­off runs.

But James needs to win this Fi­nals to avoid fall­ing too far be­low .500 in the big­gest cat­e­gory of all — he stands 2-3 in cham­pi­onship rounds, hav­ing lost his only other one with Cleve­land in four games against the Spurs in 2007.

He turned off NBA fans in 2010 when he aban­doned the Cava­liers for Miami amid the hor­ri­bly con­trived “The De­ci­sion” but shed most of his vil­lain sta­tus by re­join­ing his for­mer team last sum­mer.

“He went back home for the sole pur­pose of putting them in [cham­pi­onship] po­si­tion,” ABC/ESPN an­a­lyst Mark Jack­son said.

Still both­ered by his knee and back, James has suc­cess­fully dragged the Cava­liers along with him, mak­ing Shumpert and Smith rise above or­di­nary in the play­offs, not to men­tion the of­ten im­mo­bile Moz­gov at times.

“LeBron has been the star of the league for the last seven or eight years. He’s han­dled him­self re­ally well when you think about the spot­light on him, the con­stant pres­sure to win,” Kerr said. “He’s ob­vi­ously a cham­pion and has ma­tured into that role.”

Now he just has to win the Fi­nals, which would be the first in Cleve­land’s 45-year his­tory. And try to keep his body in­tact.

He didn’t seem to have much left af­ter push­ing the Cava­liers to a 114-111 over­time victory over the top-seeded Hawks in Game 3 of the East fi­nals. He dropped to the court in ex­haus­tion and stayed there sev­eral sec­onds af­ter a 37-point, 18-re­bound, 13-as­sist ef­fort in 47 min­utes.

“You could play doc­tor right now with how many in­juries I’ve got right now,” he told TNT re­porter Rachel Ni­chols af­ter that game. “It was mind over mat­ter. I was able to push through.”

He then had 23 points, nine re­bounds and seven as­sists in a blowout victory that ended the se­ries.

It’s James’ world, with every­body else living in it. Ex­cept maybe the War­riors.

Ron Schwane As­so­ci­ated Press

LeBRON JAMES WAS ABLE to spend the fi­nal mo­ments of the Eastern Con­fer­ence fi­nals sweep of At­lanta cheer­ing on his team­mates from the side­lines.

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