James’s bur­den con­tin­ues to grow

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - MICHAEL LEE

oak­land, calif. — LeBron James left open to spec­u­la­tion the rea­sons for go­ing through a nearly 20minute in­di­vid­ual work­out dur­ing Fri­day’s me­dia avail­abil­ity for the Cleve­land Cava­liers. Per­haps he was squeez­ing in time to work on the jump shot that has been er­rant more of­ten than he has liked. Per­haps he was look­ing for a dis­trac­tion — or to clear a clut­tered head — af­ter los­ing an­other all-star team­mate for the rest of this post­sea­son. Or he could have been stag­ing a cal­cu­lated protest be­cause his des­per­ate team didn’t prac­tice the day af­ter los­ing Game 1 of the NBA Fi­nals.

James even­tu­ally ad­dressed re­porters but only af­ter he cleared away a few so he could prac­tice the same step-back, fall-away jumper that would have de­feated the Golden State War­riors in reg­u­la­tion — and per­haps pre­vented all-star point guard Kyrie Irv­ing from suf­fer­ing a frac­tured left patella that has im­per­iled the Cava­liers’ cham­pi­onship dreams.

“It’s not a great feel­ing, for sure,” James said af­ter the Cava­liers’ 108100 over­time de­feat, his fifth se­riesopen­ing loss in six Fi­nals ap­pear­ances. “I didn’t get much sleep

[ Thurs­day] night. Your mind just plays with you so much through­out the course of the night. Dif­fer­ent plays, dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios, dif­fer­ent points of the game where you could have made a play here, could have made a play there to help your team win. So the mind never lets you at ease.”

James said he wasn’t dis­cour­aged be­fore the Cava­liers an­nounced Irv­ing would be out for the next three to four months. His un­wa­ver­ing fo­cus has al­ready been proved. Kevin Love dis­lo­cated his left shoul­der in the first round, and Irv­ing was pre­vi­ously limited by leg in­juries, but James never used it as an ex­cuse to de­lay his quest to de­liver a ti­tle to Cleve­land. He has car­ried the Cava­liers to the NBA Fi­nals, swap­ping his trade­mark ef­fi­cient play for a win-at-all­costs va­ri­ety.

Though he rep­re­sents a fan base that was quick to for­give and ea­ger to end a 51-year ti­tle drought, James is also play­ing with ur­gency born of his de­sire to col­lect ti­tles be­fore the end of his prime.

James will turn 31 in De­cem­ber — the same age Kobe Bryant was when he won the last of his five cham­pi­onships — and has ex­pe­ri­enced both sides of the luck quo­tient in his Fi­nals ap­pear­ances. When he made his first trip in 2007 at age 22, the Cava­liers had only a shell of Larry Hughes for two games as the Spurs com­pleted a sweep. Ray Allen’s epic cor­ner three­p­ointer gave him a chance to win his sec­ond ti­tle with the Heat in 2013.

In his last run to the Fi­nals, last year with Miami, James got “smoked out” and suc­cumbed to se­vere cramps in Game 1 against San An­to­nio. Then Dwyane Wade’s knee limited his pro­duc­tiv­ity the rest of the way. James made his fifth con­sec­u­tive Fi­nals ap­pear­ance this year by join­ing with younger all-star tal­ents who could free him from ex­ert­ing too much ef­fort.

Love is 26 and Irv­ing is 23 — more than 10 years Wade’s ju­nior — so leav­ing be­hind an old friend in Miami made sense for James’s ca­reer preser­va­tion. But the best-laid plans can eas­ily be in­ter­rupted by un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances.

“It’s a tough pill to swallow. You want to try to be as close to full strength as pos­si­ble through­out th­ese games, es­pe­cially when you’re go­ing against a wor­thy op­po­nent like we’re fac­ing,” James said. “The good thing about it: We’ve been in this po­si­tion be­fore. It’s some­thing that’s not new to us. So next man up, and guys will be ready for the chal­lenge.”

The play­offs have been un­kind to James and the Cava­liers, but this sea­son has been a whirl­wind of change. To fully grasp how much this sea­son has gone dif­fer­ently than even James could have en­vi­sioned, con­sider that he was sup­ported by a start­ing five that in­cluded Love, Irv­ing, Dion Wait­ers and An­der­son Vare­jao in the Cava­liers’ sea­son opener and likely will be joined in Game 2 of the NBA Fi­nals by Tris­tan Thomp­son, Matthew Dellave­dova, Iman Shumpert and Ti­mofey Moz­gov.

James won’t re­ceive much blame if the Cava­liers lose to the deep, tal­ented and, more im­por­tantly, healthy War­riors. He won’t catch much of a break, ei­ther, since a Fi­nals loss would put his ca­reer record on this stage at 2- 4 — an un­for­giv­ing num­ber when matched up against other all­time greats de­spite the fact he’s been fa­vored only twice to win a Fi­nals se­ries and has car­ried two weak­ened Cleve­land teams through an an­nu­ally weak Eastern Con­fer­ence.

“I re­ally don’t hear the crit­i­cism and things of that na­ture be­cause I don’t read any­thing. I don’t see any­thing. I don’t watch any­thing. So it doesn’t bother me at all,” James said. “I don’t re­ally know what the noise is out­side. Un­der­stand that we was the un­der­dog com­ing into the se­ries, and with Kyrie be­ing out peo­ple are writ­ing us off. So, I mean, that’s fine. That’s fine. . . . I said it’s go­ing to be one of the most chal­leng­ing sea­sons of my ca­reer from the be­gin­ning, and this just adds on to it.”

The bur­den to carry a worn­down ros­ter has never been greater, never more pro­nounced be­cause of the pres­sure that came from his well-ex­e­cuted home­com­ing let­ter last July and the even­tual wan­ing of his phys­i­cal dom­i­nance. James ap­peared to be feel­ing the weight of his unique predica­ment in the se­ries opener, when he scored a Fi­nals ca­reer-high 44 points.

Re­ly­ing on nu­mer­ous iso­la­tion plays that turned most of his team­mates not named Irv­ing and Moz­gov into spec­ta­tors, James be­came a high-vol­ume shooter as the War­riors de­fended him with sin­gle cov­er­age by al­ter­nat­ing Har­ri­son Barnes, Dray­mond Green, Klay Thomp­son and An­dre Iguo­dala. James scoffed at the no­tion that he fell into the War­riors’ trap to let him score at the ex­pense of get­ting his team­mates in­volved.

“You don’t let me have 40,” James said. “I go get 40.”

That will has brought James and the Cava­liers to this point, but that no longer is enough to claim the Larry O’Brien tro­phy. Cleve­land would be a pro­hib­i­tive fa­vorite to re­turn to the Fi­nals and pos­si­bly win it all next sea­son if it can get healthy and keep the cur­rent ros­ter in­tact, most no­tably by bring­ing back Love. But James can’t look ahead while most dis­count his abil­ity to over­come an un­usual po­si­tion as a de­cided un­der­dog.

“I’m go­ing to just go play the game. Just go play the game and see where it takes you,” James said. “It’s not rocket science. You just go out and see what chal­lenge of the game presents it­self. I’ve been play­ing bas­ket­ball for a long time, and I’ve seen it all. No mat­ter what the cir­cum­stances are, you go out and play as hard as you can and you live with the re­sults.”

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