Season on LeBrink: LeBron James and the Cavs face the daunting task of avoiding a sweep
The brooms are out. But Cleveland’s season is still alive, no matter how faint its heartbeat
There’s no such thing as unfamiliar basketball territory for LeBron James. Especially in the NBA Finals. Not even being down 0-3. James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, after all, were down like this last year. “It’s almost like playing the [New England] Patriots,” James ended up saying about the Golden State Warriors after Game 3. “They’re not going to beat themselves.” Teams down 3-0 in the Finals are 0-131. Yet, despite the circumstances, LeBron James — relaxed, zen — seems like a man at peace.
Cleveland’s double-digit first-half lead was never safe. The Warriors, in rope-a-dope fashion, took countless body blows but were down only six at halftime. This was in large part due to the play of Kevin Durant. “You guys asked me this last year,” James said at the postgame presser when asked what separates the Warriors of the past two years from the Warriors of 2015 and ‘16. “[KD’s] one of the best players I’ve ever played against [and] that this league has ever seen.”
Durant, much like in Game 3 of last year’s Finals, again turned Quicken Loans Arena into his own personal little shop of horrors. Anything Durant wanted, Durant took. Backing down smaller players and shooting over them? Check. Pulling up from anywhere on the court — including a backbreaking 30-plus-foot 3 in the fourth that drew instant comparisons to his soul-snatching triple in Game 3 last year from almost exactly the same spot? Check.
“That’s what he does,” said James. “He’s an assassin. That was one of those assassin plays right there.” Durant’s playoff career-high 43 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists not only placed himself firmly in the Finals MVP discussion alongside Stephen Curry, it has Cleveland’s season on LeBrink.
Postgame. The mood in Cleveland’s locker room is somber. The reality: The Cavs’ season could end Friday night and jump-start a transformative summer featuring LeBron’s free agency as the NBA’s top offseason storyline. This was the Cavs’ most important game of the series — one they knew meant the difference between a potentially series-tying opportunity in Game 4 and playing for pride of not getting swept. Jordan Clarkson and Jose Calderon left the arena not long after the game ended. Tristan Thompson, who recorded eight points and seven rebounds Wednesday, was visibly and understandably flustered as he exited.
Conversely, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were all smiles, laughs and jokes in the hallway outside the locker room as they awaited their turn at the podium as late-night became midnight and beyond.
“The series isn’t over, and these guys [some Cavaliers teammates] have been in this position before,” said Rodney Hood, who had his breakout performance of the postseason Wednesday night with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting. “Us younger guys, new guys, we just have to follow their lead.”
James admitted that Game 3’s loss would stick with him until it came time to try to stave off elimination on Friday. “I’m not sure what time I’ll end up going to bed,” he said, even after having played 47 minutes in a Game 3 that, much like Game 1, simply got away from Cleveland. Even with Curry and Klay Thompson combining for one of the worst shooting performances of the Splash Brothers era, James tipped his hat to Golden State, saying that an off shooting night for Curry and Thompson was a luxury possessed by his four-time Finals opponent. In addition to the NFL’s Patriots, James also compared the Warriors to the great San Antonio teams he’s faced with Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and later Kawhi Leonard.
For his part, James, as he does most nights in the postseason, had another historic outing. He notched his 23rd career triple-double and 10th in his Finals career (the most of all time) with 33 points, a game-high 11 assists and 10 rebounds. He passed Michael Jordan for the most career 30-point games in the playoffs with 110. He surpassed Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn (who has called James a “crybaby” ) for fifth all-time in playoff rebounds. But James also became just the second player in history with 30 Finals losses, joining Jerry West.
James isn’t conceding defeat. And despite the disparity in both series deficit and offensive firepower, envisioning James’ season ending in a sweep feels offkey. “It’s tough [going against the Warriors], but it’s all part of the competition,” he said, “which I love and which I continue to lace them up for every night.” But James did seem at peace last night — or at least as at peace as one can be given the situation in which the Cavaliers find themselves. James, like the rest of the country, knows what awaits if Friday brings the same result as Wednesday. The questions, the speculation, the rumors. At least for now, James is content living in the moment. His team’s back is against the wall against one of the greatest collections of talent that sports has ever seen. That kind of controlled chaos is peaceful, in a weird way.
He walked away from the podium in Thursday’s early morning hours with the same understanding fans who piled out of Quicken Loans. Tonight night could be the end of an era (again). The team that has given James all he could handle since he returned to Cleveland four summers ago could celebrate its third title in four years at his expense — and lather champagne for the second time in four years in his arena’s visitors locker room. James will cross that bridge if, or when, the time comes. But for now, James and the Cavaliers are still in the NBA Finals. Regardless of how faint that sliver of hope may be.