James’s burden continues to grow
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.”