OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the 2017 NBA Finals as considerable underdogs to a Golden State Warriors squad most crowned as a champion as soon as Kevin Durant was signed last July. Even those most inclined to believe in the Cavs’ chances to repeat had to construct elaborate victory scenarios — at minimum, everything it took to come back from a 3-1 deficit in 2016, plus so much more to combat the addition of K.D. The series would either confirm the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of last season’s comeback or elevate LeBron to the Greatest of All Time.
Two games in, LeBron and the Cavs’ challenge somehow seems significantly greater than previously imagined. The Warriors have been both the much better team and noticeably flawed, staking themselves to a 2-0 series advantage despite copious missed shots at the rim in Game 1 and 13 first-half turnovers in Game 2. Whenever the Cavs have made a run to challenge a lead, the Warriors have had an answer, often via Durant or another star. It’s not clear how any team can defend so many quality players at the same time, and Cleveland hasn’t yet offered much success to serve as a starting point for a more complete strategy. The fact that the Warriors haven’t been perfect makes them even scarier.
“I thought for the most part with the game plan that we had we tried to execute it as close as possible,” said James after the Game 2 loss. “Much more physical today than we were in Game 1. And we forced them to 20 turnovers and they still beat us pretty good, so we got to be much better, too.”
LeBron certainly did his part to keep the Cavaliers as competitive as they were. His 29 points (12-of-18 shooting), 14 assists and 11 rebounds constituted his eighth career NBA Finals triple-double, which ties him with Magic Johnson for the all-time record. James attacked early, found his teammates for open shots, and took on considerable defensive responsibilities while guarding Durant and serving as a roving rim protector in small lineups. For all of Durant’s excellence, there’s an argument to be made that LeBron was the best player on the floor Sunday night. His degree of difficulty was certainly higher.
“I don’t know what you do with him,” said returning Warriors head coach Steve Kerr about James. “He’s one of the great players of all time, we all know that. I think he’s playing better than he’s ever played, and you just do your best. You kind of know that he’s going to dominate the game.”
Yet LeBron’s contributions rarely felt like enough to get the Cavaliers a road win in Game 2. The challenges of scoring at the Warriors’ pace, keeping up with Durant and every other threat at the defensive end, and enforcing the Cavs’ preferred style took their toll, and the 32-year-old looked fatigued during a two-point, one-shot fourth quarter before heading to the bench for garbage time. Cleveland sputtered to the final buzzer and couldn’t even get off the court without a delay for a fight between fans. LeBron opted to address the media in the locker room, not the press room, and dismissed more than a few questions with apparent annoyance.
In past seasons, similar events and circumstances would have been cause for lengthy discussions regarding James, a champion’s temperament and his place in league history. The best player of this era has also been the most hotly debated, whether for his decision to join the Miami Heat in 2010, broader considerations of his legacy relative to Michael Jordan and the other greats of the sport, or any of the hundreds of other topics that have become mini-controversies over his career. Unlike most superstars, LeBron has spent the bulk of his career in dialogue with his own historical relevance. Not surprisingly, he’s also been the central figure of every major event of his career.
The Cavs and Warriors split their previous two finals matchups, but LeBron defined both series. His 2016 performance needs no introduction — it instantly became one of the greatest in league history. Yet his showing in 2015’s six-game elimination was often just as fascinating. Leading an injury-ravaged squad to a 2-1 series lead inspired many to claim that he deserved to become the first losing player to win Finals MVP since Jerry West in 1969, and it’s hard to say he wasn’t the best player in the series. While the Warriors eventually solved the defense-first Cavs, James carried an unprecedented workload and seemingly did everything in his power to keep his team close. He dictated every single possession to an extent we may never see again.
The Cavs’ current 0-2 hole is not itself a shock, and pales in comparison to the mathematical disadvantage they found themselves in 12 months ago. What has been particularly surprising about this series, though, is the extent to which LeBron himself feels overmatched. Cleveland has not only struggled to defend Golden State’s many capable scorers. The challenge increasingly feels like a game of 20-dimensional Whack-A-Mole, with four new strengths popping up just as one has finally been handled. The focus is all on the Warriors and the worries that they’re breaking the league. If LeBron is part of that narrative, it’s only because even he can’t hold back the juggernaut. He’s far from irrelevant, but he’s also not the primary actor.
If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that an early series advantage doesn’t end a series, especially when James plays for the underdog. (The change in venue to Quicken Loans Arena should help, as well.) However, history increasingly feels like a poor guide for this particular version of the Warriors-Cavs matchup. Durant has added too many fresh variables to the equation, and the problem has to be solved anew. LeBron, for one, refuses to compare this series to the previous one.
“No, I’m not a ‘past’ guy too much,” he said. “I’m more of a present guy, so we just got to figure out how we can be better in Game 3.”
That past may offer little more than hope for the Cavs right now, but it also ensures LeBron cannot be counted out of this series. He has come up huge in meaningful games too many times, mustered too many performances only he could put forth.
After two games, though, Golden State has been too good to allow for such simplistic formulas. Such a strong team demands sober expectations for opponents. At this point, it would feel like an incredible accomplishment if James and the Cavs simply made the Warriors uncomfortable.
For once in LeBron’s career, it feels wrong to expect too much of him. Even if just for a few days, he’s no longer the primary figure in a series. All it took was one of the greatest collections of talent the NBA has ever seen.
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