CLEVELAND -- He is averaging an outrageous 42.3 points in the Eastern Conference finals while shooting 50.9 percent with 7.3 assists -- numbers that exceed his MVP season. So what more is
"Just try to win ball games," he said less than two hours before he contributed 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists to Cleveland's loss in Game 4 at Orlando, stranding the Cavaliers with a 3-1 deficit heading into Game 5 here Thursday night. "Just try to win ball games and put our team in a position to win every game. I've been able to do that."
But the Cavs have wasted those chances. Despite his gaudy numbers, James hasn't been blameless, as he acknowledged after committing an unusual seven turnovers in the final 12 minutes of regulation and overtime in Game 4. Those mistakes were forced by a Magic defensive strategy that is enabling LeBron to score while limiting opportunities for his teammates. The failure of those teammates is the story of Cleveland's series. Knowing that he can't outscore Orlando by himself, and wired as he is to make plays for others, James was forced to take risks in hopes of rallying his team.
It remains too early for an autopsy on Cleveland, which isn't being blown out of the gym. The Cavs have lost three games by a total of 13 points, and they could very well reverse that trend with a victory Thursday that would create a dramatic Game 6 showdown in Orlando on Saturday. But the Cavs' inability to overcome the mismatches drawn up by Orlando coach
After six months and two postseason series' worth of dominance, the other 11 Cavs suddenly are running out of time to prove they are good enough. All-Star point guard
More worrisome than the offensive numbers is Cleveland's passive defense. The Cavs are unable to defend the perimeter against Orlando's taller three-point shooters, and they're allowing Magic center
For all of that, the Cavs shouldn't be losing faith. In the first two games, they built leads of 16 and 23 points, respectively, and they held the lead at the end of both Games 1 and 4 before being undone by
"This thing is a long, long, long way from over," said Van Gundy, who, of course, would say the same if he were up 3-0 on the Grizzlies, but in this case it carries a ring of the truth. "When you've got a guy as great as him on the other side, you're a long way from done."
"Him" being James. It is entirely possible that this 3-1 deficit is mere prelude to a preposterous, run-the-table comeback of which he is entirely capable. When Lewis missed a free throw to leave Cleveland within 116-114 with 3.2 seconds remaining in OT in Game 4, a moment of encompassing dread struck the Orlando audience at the thought of another miraculous LeBron three-pointer at the buzzer -- even though the Cavs had no timeouts and were inbounding from their baseline. One possession earlier, James had hit a turnaround catch-and-shoot three-pointer in which he tiptoed along the sideline near the Magic bench like an NFL receiver keeping both feet inbounds.
"I was talking to [Magic backup guard]
Van Gundy was referring to the criticism he took after single-covering James when he won Game 2. This time he assigned
"He made a move like a tight end and caught the ball, and still gets off a reasonable shot," Van Gundy said.
It was a 40-footer, wide left, and it affirmed what James no doubt realizes: If the Cavs are a legitimate contender, they shouldn't be relying on him to perform miracles. His teammates should be putting Orlando on its heels, defending Howard in the paint and exploiting the opportunities that come with playing alongside the league MVP, rather than waiting for him to bail them out.
"We got to close out games right away," said James, referring to Orlando's second-half comebacks in Games 1, 2 and 4. "We are breaking down in areas that we haven't broke down all year. ... We need one stop. We haven't got one stop to win a ball game yet."
When he says "we," he means to say he can't do it by himself.