NBA Finals May Be over Already, Unless LeBron Can Be Better Than He's Ever Been

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJune 5, 2015

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

OAKLAND — The visiting locker room at Oracle Arena was cool, comfortable and, considering the circumstances, not especially cramped following the Golden State Warriors' 108-100 overtime win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not for the NBA Finals, and certainly not when compared to the steamy crawlspace that was provided to LeBron James' team 364 days earlier in the bowels of the AT&T Center.

Plus, this time, James spent the postgame period in plain sight. He was in front of his stall, ice wrapped 'round his right wrist, knuckles pressed to his temples, rather than lying prone back in a training room, taking IVs to combat the cramping caused by a malfunctioning A/C.

So all of that was different from one year ago, minus one day, in San Antonio.

But something Thursday was exactly the same: James was down 1-0, feeling that a shot at stealing the opener had slipped away. And now this is also the same, heading into Sunday's Game 2: His team's hopes clearly come down to whether he, and he alone, can muster a miracle. 

We suspected that was so last June, even before James' Heat opened their series against the Spurs, but especially after they collapsed in his absence in Game 1. After James' driving layup gave the Heat a two-point lead, and his body completely shut down, San Antonio ripped off a 16-3 closing run. 

If we didn't know the same was true for James' Cavaliers in this series, that he was essentially operating solo, it should have been apparent Sunday. Not even 44 points, his highest total in 28 NBA Finals appearances, were sufficient to finish the uncharacteristically wobbly Warriors in regulation.

It became even more obvious after Kyrie Irving exited with a seemingly serious re-aggravation of a left knee injury and James produced the only two Cleveland points in overtime. It became plainer still when Irving winced while hobbling from the shower to his stall, needing Tristan Thompson to yell at the media to clear a path. And even more when Irving sat with a towel draped over his head for several minutes and when he left the arena on crutches after cheering up briefly with some family and associates outside the locker room.

"We all have to be better, including myself," James said.

He'll need to be better than he was Thursday, when he took more shots (38) in a game than ever before, whether in the regular season or postseason.

He'll need to be better than Stephen Curry, by far, since Curry's stronger supporting cast gives him the luxury of scuffling some without the Warriors losing their way. He did early Thursday before settling in, starting with a spectacular second-quarter spree. 

He'll need to be better than he was in the final four games of last June's NBA Finals, three of which the Spurs won, even though he averaged 29.0 points on 58.1 percent shooting. It's efficiency he has achieved in only one of 15 games this postseason, as he's carried the Cavaliers in an offense that relies more on isolation than the one he operated his final three seasons in Miami. 

He'll need to be better, because while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh weren't especially impactful in the 2014 finals, it was preferable to have whatever they were offering than what Irving and Kevin Love can provide now, if Irving joins Love in street clothes for the rest of the series. 

Last week, James told reporters he is playing the best he ever has, an assertion that raised eyebrows considering the drop in his efficiency. On Wednesday, prior to practice, I asked what made him feel that way. 

LeBron James fired 38 shots in Game 1, the highest single-game total of his career.
LeBron James fired 38 shots in Game 1, the highest single-game total of his career.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"If I was to say just my game, I wouldn't think so," James said. "I haven't shot the ball well. I've had some high‑turnover games in the postseason. So as far as just going out on the floor, I wouldn't say this is the best I've played in a stretch run. I would think '09 I had a pretty good run when we lost to Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals. I believe I averaged like 37, like 50‑something percent shooting in that round."

His memory doesn't miss by much: He averaged 38.5 while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor.

"High rebounds, high assists, and I felt really good," James said. "Just couldn't get our guys over the hump. But I think now when you put my whole body of work, as far as how I approach the game mentally as well as my game, I'm very, very confident in my ability to be able to see the game even before the game is played."

The Cavaliers have played enough playoff games without Love, and with Irving hobbling or sitting, for us to see those before they happen too. And specifically to see what is required of James to keep his group competitive.

James needs to handle the ball on every possession. On Thursday, according to SportVU, he had 108 touches, 20 more than Curry, and 22 more than Irving. That's even as the latter, prior to the overtime setback, looked much more spry than in either of the prior two rounds.

James needs to assess and attack every possible type of defender, with the Warriors uniquely diverse in this area, rotating between the youthful Harrison Barnes and the physical Draymond Green and the skilled Klay Thompson and the savvy Andre Iguodala, who actually had the most sustained success. 

James faced a rotating cast of defenders in Game 1, from Draymond Green to Harrison Barnes to Klay Thompson to Andre Iguodala.
James faced a rotating cast of defenders in Game 1, from Draymond Green to Harrison Barnes to Klay Thompson to Andre Iguodala.John G. Mabanglo/Associated Press/Associated Press

James needs to eschew all of his inhibitions; he's taken at least 29 shots in four playoff games, after doing so in only six games in his previous nine postseasons. He needs to do so while still somehow making sure others get involved, though he can't catch the ball cleanly for Timofey Mozgov nor ensure that J.R. Smith will shoot it straight or keep Irving from twisting a knee. 

Oh, and then he needs to make a winning play at the end.

He did that the last time he played in this building, more than 15 months ago, when he shot the Heat into the All-Star break with a step-back 27-footer from the left wing just before the buzzer. 

"I was going for the win the whole time," James explained Feb. 12, 2014. "I just wanted to make sure I made it with little to no time left, or I made it with no time left."

His defender?

Andre Iguodala.

"There's nothing I would change," Iguodala insisted that night. "He just made a tough shot."

This time, with Iguodala guarding him, James took an even tougher one, a 21-foot fadeaway over the veteran's octopus arms with 3.8 seconds left. The shot caromed to Iman Shumpert for another attempt that also didn't connect, sending the game to an extra session. 

James' missed fadeaway over Andre Iguodala sent Game 1 of the finals to overtime, where the Cavs were outscored 10-2.
James' missed fadeaway over Andre Iguodala sent Game 1 of the finals to overtime, where the Cavs were outscored 10-2.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"My mindset was we're either going to go out of here with a win or going into overtime," James said, echoing sentiments he expressed on that earlier occasion. "I'm going to get the last shot." 

At the time, it still seemed the Cavaliers had a chance for that steal. But he missed his first shot of the overtime, a jump hook. Then Smith missed a three-pointer. Then Irving missed a reverse layup, after which he landed awkwardly, perhaps a precursor to his left knee giving way as he tried to drive by Klay Thompson, leading to a painful limp to the locker room. 

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers kept missing. Smith missed again. Then Mozgov. Then Smith. Then James, from deep. And again.

"We couldn't get a good look," James said. "We couldn't get nothing to drop, including myself." 

By the time James converted a meaningless driving layup, the game, and Irving, had been lost. The series too? 

Probably so, unless James finds his highest level yet, higher even than his highest scoring total in all of his finals appearances. 

Can he? 

We'll see. For now, he finds himself in a different uniform, in a different city, in a different arena, against a different opponent, but in an all too familiar place.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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