This first appeared in the June 4 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up, NBA Finals edition. You can subscribe by clicking here.
OAKLAND, Calif. — The final seconds of the game were still ticking off the clock inside Oracle Arena, but LeBron James had already seen enough.
Rather than watch the score flashing on the scoreboard — Golden State 122, Cleveland 103 — become official, James began marching across the court. By the time the buzzer sounded, confirming the Warriors’ win over the Cavaliers in Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Sunday night, James was already proceeding up the tunnel and out of sight.
The task of beating the Warriors four times in seven games was daunting enough. Now, for James to win his fourth championship, he’ll have to beat them four out of five.
“I think, at the end of the day, we have a Game 3 to play,” James said. “We’ve got an opportunity to go home, and we’ve played some really good basketball on our home floor.”
The Cavaliers acquitted themselves well in both games here, but they still have their hands full. It was hard to watch Game 2 play out and not think about what could have been, had Cleveland properly closed out Game 1.
James played every second Sunday before Coach Tyronn Lue raised the white flag with 4:09 remaining, finishing with 29 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds while shooting 10 for 20 from the floor. But it wasn’t the same kind of performance that James put forth in Game 1 — 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — and the scoreboard reflected that.
This is the standard to which James is being held these days. A great game isn’t good enough. A historic game, the kind he had in Game 1, is required for Cleveland to even have a chance.
It’s not that James had no help in this game. Kevin Love had 22 points and 10 rebounds, and George Hill added 15 points. But Golden State got 33 points and a Finals record nine three-pointers from Stephen Curry, 26 points from Kevin Durant and 20 from Klay Thompson.
Cleveland has no chance against that kind of firepower, not to mention the rest of the Warriors playing the kind of locked-in, defending champion-style of basketball the world has been waiting to see from them all season. Shooting 57.3 percent overall, including 41.7 percent from three-point range, and committing only 12 turnovers — and just four in the entire second half — Golden State played like a team that had been properly spooked into focusing on the task at hand after its Game 1 escape.
None of that matters, though. Not to James, anyway. To the outside world, getting this far constitutes a successful season no matter how this series plays out. To James, only a fourth championship will suffice.
And he isn’t concerned with how long those odds are now.
“I don’t really get caught up in that,” James said. “I mean, the odds have been against me since, I don’t know, since I was 5, 6 years old. … We’re talking about basketball here. It seems like I come up here and tell you guys this all the time, [but] the odds have been stacked up against me since I was an adolescent. So I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship. It’s my job to make sure 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. I need to continue to do that, which I will.”
If there remained any doubt that James would be able to carry this kind of load day after day, game after game, these playoffs have erased them. Despite being in the 15th season of his career, James remains the game’s apex predator, the player all others in a league full of alpha males recognize as the best.
Golden State presents a challenge no single star can stop, though. Even with their best defensive option against James, Andre Iguodala, sitting on the sideline in street clothes, the Warriors still feature four all-stars — including two former MVPs and the reigning defensive player of the year.
Cleveland has Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith remaining from its championship team of two years ago, plus Kyle Korver and Hill. That’s a good team, to be sure. But the Cavs are not on the same level as Golden State from a talent perspective. Perhaps as soon as next season, they won’t be on the same level as the likes of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, either.
There’s a reason that, during the game, NBA players Jared Dudley and C.J. McCollum were debating on Twitter where James should play next season. The specter of James’s free agency hangs over the entire league, not just the Cavaliers. Talk about his future has been in the air for months.
Cleveland will undoubtedly remain aggressive and could try using the No. 8 pick in this month’s draft to swing a deal for another veteran to put alongside James. This series is proving — just as their slugfests against the Indiana Pacers and Celtics earlier in the playoffs did — that the Cavaliers need more around him.
Needing to produce not just a great game, but an all-time great game, every single night is a standard not even James can live up to. But these first two games have proved that’s what it will take for Cleveland to win a game in this series, let alone four of them.
No one knows that better than James. So as those final seconds ticked away Sunday, he was off, walking alone across the court, past the basket and up the tunnel, already beginning to prepare for Wednesday night in Cleveland.
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