By Chris Mannix
June 05, 2015
OAKLAND—An hour after the final buzzer, with the confetti still being swept off the Oracle Arena floor, with hundreds of gold-clad fans still buzzing in the parking lot, LeBron James shuffled into a windowless makeshift interview room in the bowels of the building. If he looked tired, he should: 46 minutes, a career-high 38 shots against the league’s best defense in a demoralizing 108-100 loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals will do that.
“We all have to be better,” James said. “Including myself.”
Don’t feel bad for James. He’s got hundreds of millions of dollars, two championships and the undying love of Northeast Ohio, which, frankly, means as much to him as the first two. But have a twinge of sympathy. What James almost did on Thursday was incredible.
The line: 44 points, eight rebounds and six assists, though truthfully the numbers don’t do the performance justice. For most of the game, James was the Cavs offense. He handed the ball—either in the post or on the perimeter—and was asked to make a play. Often, he did.
Like many teams, Golden State elected to let LeBron beat them. Not because they believed he couldn’t; but because James going off for 40-plus was better than James getting 30 and lighting a blowtorch under his teammates. An oft-echoed James scouting report: Force him left, give him space and hope he misses jump shots. Don’t help, because he’ll whip those cross-court passes to open teammates and they will kill you with three-pointers. “It’s pick your poison with him,” said Steve Kerr. “He’s difficult to stop.”
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Indeed. The Warriors sent waves of defenders at James; Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green each took turns. Iguodala—a first string All-Defensive team member last season—got most of the reps late. “One of the smartest defenders in the league,” Kerr said. Iguodala held James to two points in overtime, about the only stretch where James looked human Thursday.

It’s been said before: This season may be James’s best. He’s put up better numbers before. He’s won MVP’s. His teams have had more success. But to return to Cleveland, to work with a rookie NBA coach, to lead a young, inexperienced roster, to lose Kevin Love in the first round and still beat Chicago and stomp top seeded Atlanta—it’s the stuff legends are made of.
Much has been made of James’s record in the Finals. He’s 2-3, and if Kyrie Irving’s knee injury was as bad as it looked on Thursday—Irving limped out of the Cavs locker room on crutches—a fourth loss isn’t far off. But a by-the-numbers look at LeBron is just lazy. The 2007 Cavs was one of the worst Finals teams in NBA history. I’ll give you the ’01 Sixers—that’s it. It was varsity-JV against San Antonio, with JV justifiably getting slaughtered.
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He could have won in 2011. The Heat were every bit as talented as Dallas that year. But they lacked chemistry, something the Mavericks were thick with. He won two straight titles before losing to the Spurs last June. OK, new rule: Any time a team loses to San Antonio, they can’t be clobbered for it. The Spurs are that good.

On paper, this Cleveland team is good. Really good. The Cavs could dominate the Eastern Conference for the next five years. James, 30, is in his prime; Love, 26, insists he is committed to Cleveland for the long term. Irving, 23, and Tristan Thompson, 24, are still getting better. A Miami-like arc, where the Cavs become the league’s marquee franchise isn’t just possible; it’s probable.
This year though, James is outgunned. He could have made it interesting. If his 21-footer connected at the end of regulation, if Irving never had to play an overtime period he would wrench his knee in, the Cavs had a shot. But this Golden State team is good. They overcame early jitters to erase a 14-point lead in the first half and did it with Green (4-13 FG) and Klay Thompson (5-14 FG) having inefficient nights.
James singlehandedly closed the talent gap between the Cavs and Warriors on Thursday. Make no mistake though: That gap is considerable. With Irving hobbled—an MRI is scheduled for Friday—Golden State can dedicate its defense to James. “We want to continue to try to wear him down,” Green said. And while J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have played well since coming over from New York at midseason, it’s too much to expect them to pick up Irving’s slack.
“They expect me to make plays,” James said. “It’s nothing I did tonight. It’s nothing different than what I’ve been doing all postseason. That’s just been our game plan.”
Cleveland is starved for a championship—its drought has lasted 51 years and counting—and James is the man destined to give it to them. One day, he will lead a parade down Euclid Avenue, will lay to rest the ghosts of The Drive, The Fumble and The Catch. James was defiant on the issue of injuries after Game 1 (“It’s next man up,” he says) but he has to know, no Irving, no Love, no title, not against this Western Conference goliath.
Cleveland’s day is coming, it’s long, title-less drought will end. It’s just likely to take another season.