CLEVELAND—Shaun Livingston darted towards the basket and, finally, mercifully, LeBron James decided he had enough. Down 16 points, 40 minutes into his fourth straight 40-plus minute night, James shoved the Warriors guard, sending him crashing into the first row of cameras. James turned, shuffled towards the Cavaliers bench, head down, seemingly willing head coach David Blatt to take him out. Less than a minute later Blatt did, leaving James to watch the final three minutes of a 103-82 loss to Golden State from the bench, expressionless.
Throughout these Finals, James has been unstoppable, a human wrecking ball careening into the Warriors' defense, a one-man offense single-handedly carving up Golden State’s top-ranked defense, elevating a ragtag bunch within two wins of an improbable NBA championship. For James, it was the perfect narrative: No Kevin Love, no Kyrie Irving, no problem for James, who would win this title by beating Stephen Curry, the man who took the MVP trophy from him, who would deliver a championship to this long suffering city while simultaneously sticking it to Pat Riley, the GM who publicly, albeit passive aggressively, turned on him after he left the Heat.
Fatigue was his only enemy, yet James dismissed it after Game 2. “Of course I’m built for this,” James said. And he is. But the body can only take so much, even a 6’8”, 250-pound one; a star can only carry a team so far, even one with shoulders as broad as James’s. James scored a series-low 20 points (on 31.8% shooting), bricked half his free throws (5-10) and made only one of his four three-point attempts.
Golden State claimed its second win of the Finals; fatigue claimed its first.
This is what the Warriors wanted, what it believed would give them an edge. Cleveland, as its been well chronicled, is a M.A.S.H. unit, down two All-Stars—with a third starter, Anderson Varejao, sidelined as well—and with a shooting guard (Iman Shumpert) battling a shoulder injury and a point guard (Matthew Dellavedova) that needed to be hospitalized after Game 3 due to dehydration. The Cavaliers go seven deep, which includes one player, J.R. Smith, who, in his words, has been “horses---” this series and another, James Jones, who averaged less than 12 minutes per game during the regular season. The rotation can only be stretched so far; in the final minutes of Game 4, it appeared to reach its limit.
“Tonight was the third game in five days, including the trip back from the West Coast,” Blatt said. “It seemed to have an impact on us.”
Added James, “We don't have many options as far as lineups we can go to.”
Indeed, the undeniable truth is that this Cavs team will rise and fall largely on the success of James, who will have to coax better performances out of Dellavedova (3-of-14 shooting) and Smith (2-of-12), who must slow this game down to a crawl. James is a physical specimen, a tight end playing point forward, but on Thursday, facing waves of defenders, facing more double teams than he has seen all series, James looked mortal. He looked like a man beginning to crumble under the weight of oversized expectations.
The series now shifts back to Golden State, back to Oakland, where the Warriors are finally feeling a little confidence. Curry (22 points) still isn’t completely right and Andrew Bogut (three minutes in Game 4) has been shockingly bad. But the fresh legs of David Lee (nine points, five rebounds) has had an impact and the insertion of defensive stopper Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup on Thursday gave the defense a boost. Golden State had the best home record in the NBA this season, and now only have to win twice in Oracle Arena to claim the title.
There was no panic in James’s voice on Thursday, no signs of defeat. He refused to call the next three games the biggest challenge of his career—his trip to Boston down 3-2 in 2012 with Miami (or “the franchise that I was with at the time,” as James put it) remains at the top of the list—or make sweeping demands for more playing time for Mike Miller, Shawn Marion or Brendan Haywood. He acknowledged the obvious (“I ran through those 12 minutes in the third, and I gassed out”) while exuding a cool confidence about the immediate future. Yet as James prepares to head back to Oakland, the basketball world wonders: Will he be able to play with the same energy he had before he left?
“It shouldn't matter what everyone is talking about or what everyone is putting pressure on you or things of that nature,” James said. “It means nothing. You go out and you play, and you've been playing basketball your whole life. You live with the results after that.“