'He Put Us on His Back': Can LeBron Keep Carrying Cavs Through the Playoffs?

Scott Sargent@WFNYScottFeatured Columnist IApril 30, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James waits for the game to resume in the first half of Game 5 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Wednesday, April 25, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — For the first time this postseason, LeBron James looked human. Seated outside his locker following the Cleveland Cavaliers105-101 Game 7 victory over the Indiana Pacers, James' superhero facade appeared to wear thin.

Shirtless with giant bags of ice taped to his knees as Nas' "Street Dreams" echoed from a speaker near his submerged feet, James had the look of a man who crossed the finish line on empty.

Earlier in the evening, James was caught on camera saying he was playing all 48 minutes in the now-or-never contest. He played 43 minutes, kept off the floor momentarily due to leg cramps that struck late in the third quarter and carried into the game's final period.

Staring at his first-ever first-round elimination, James responded with 45 points (on 16-of-25 shooting), nine rebounds, seven assists and four steals. It's the kind of line that would be lauded for days if not coming from the same man who produced similar lines all through the first round of the playoffs.

As he reclined in his chair and ate a postgame meal, several teammates and friends came over to his locker, one by one as if it were a scene from The Godfather, congratulating the four-time MVP on yet another job well done.

"Good s--t," Cavs center Tristan Thompson said as he detoured from the showers to his locker. Then it was Kendrick Perkins. Long-time friend and current director of scouting Brandon Weems took his turn speaking with James before the conversation was taken over by James' personal trainer, Mike Mancias.

A cavalcade of men, simultaneously congratulating and marveling as James pulled his team through an entire seven-game series, each game seemingly going to the brink, doing so with a sequence of box scores that only served to outdo the last.

"I just try to do whatever it takes to help us win, and I felt like I just wanted to do that again in this series," James said of his seven-game stint of heroics. "[I] just try to make plays offensively and defensively, continue to trust my guys and trust myself, and trust how much work I've put into my game. So it's definitely good to be able to make plays and help yourself advance."

That James did. Despite being on the target end of an aggressive Pacers defensive scheme, James battled throughout. His 45 points Sunday marked the third time he scored 40-plus points in the series. In the seven games, he averaged 34.4 points (on 55.3 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists per night—the latter of which would have been considerably higher if not for some untimely cold spells across the rest of the Cavaliers' roster.

"It's hard to put it into words, but that's why he's the best player on the planet," Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue said following the game. "He put us on his back scoring the basketball, facilitating, being aggressive, getting the bigs in foul trouble a lot throughout the course of this series by attacking the basket and just getting to the free-throw line, which put a lot of pressure on their defense. So, he did it all for us this series."

The Cavs needed every ounce of what James was able to give on Sunday afternoon, but a question looms: Can he keep playing at this level while the rest of the Cavaliers struggle to produce consistently?

It is unwise to bet against James in any capacity. In the 2015 NBA Finals, he took a Cavs team that had lost both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury and produced the best statistical NBA Finals series the league had seen to that point. In 2016, it was James' Cavaliers who came back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals to win the first title the city of Cleveland had seen in 52 years. Last season, though the Cavaliers fell to the Warriors in five games, he averaged a triple-double throughout the finals series, becoming the first player in the league's history to do so.

But these were all NBA Finals performances. Rarely has James had to give this level of effort across a first-round series. Since his return to Cleveland in 2014, the Cavaliers have swept each of their first-round opponents.

To put it in perspective, the Cavs did not lose a single game last postseason until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But last season's team also had a pair of All-Stars in Love and Irving, who each had the potential to bail Cleveland out if James' shot wasn't falling.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 2: Kyrie Irving #2 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers help LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers to his feet after James was fouled during the second half against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 2,
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The story is quite different this season. James, who turned 33 in December, played in all 82 games for the first time in his career. He produced one of his most efficient seasons as a professional, leading a Cleveland team that wore turmoil like it were a sponsorship patch.

Hopes were, of course, that the midseason acquisition of players who fit around him better would relieve some of the pressure that forced James to produce yet another MVP-caliber season despite it being his 15th in the league.

With a startling lack of help permeating the entire first round, however, not only did the Cavaliers lose three of the seven games, but their four wins were by a total of 14 points. James, the NBA's league leader in minutes played, played north of 39 minutes in all but one game.

James' 34.4 points is leading all postseason players, but the next-highest per-game average on the Cavs is Kevin Love's 11.4 (good enough for 58th among postseason players).

Despite a strong first half in Game 4—during which the Cavs ultimately blew a 17-point halftime lead—Love is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field, missing 10 uncontested field goals in Games 5 and 6 alone. Of the new players who were acquired in February to provide James assistance, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. combined to shoot 0-of-6 in Game 7, tallying one total point.

According to SportsCenter, it was the first playoff series in James' career where nary a teammate scored 20 points in any of the games. 

"Whenever you've got the best player in the world or your leader on the team giving everything he's got, whether he's playing the point guard position, guarding, rebounding, blocking shots, assisting, for me and the younger guys, we've got to pick it up," Cavs center Tristan Thompson said. "We've got to give everything we've got. If he's giving 100 percent, we've got to give 120."

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 29: LeBron James #23 and Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react to a second half play while playing the Indiana Pacers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As it pertains to the rest of this postseason, does the legacy of LeBron James have yet another chapter of amazement left to be written? Indiana stifled the Cavaliers with terrific guard play coupled with dynamic big men who terrorized them during any attempted switch in the pick-and-roll game. Ahead lies the No. 1 seed Toronto Raptors, who have a pair of All-Star guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, a punishing center in Jonas Valanciunas and a dynamic, floor-stretching big in Serge Ibaka.

Many will point to the success the Cavaliers have had against the Raptors in the past, being the team that has ended Toronto's season in each of the years since James' return. Those who want to get a little more recent can point to Cleveland's wins over Toronto in late March and early April, but in each of these games, James had substantial help from both the rest of his starting teammates and the Cavaliers' reserves.

Since the regular season came to a close, James has been going at it largely alone. Sure, certain teammates have stepped up in big moments—like Kyle Korver in Game 5 or Love in the fourth quarter of Game 7—but these have been few and far between. James was kind to offer the game ball to Thompson and Cavs point guard George Hill for their efforts on Sunday afternoon, but when asked by Bleacher Report how this opening series will translate into the next round, James' exhaustion reached a crescendo.

"I'm burnt right now," said James. "I'm not thinking about Toronto until tomorrow. I'm ready to go home. I'm tired. I want to go home."

As James stood up from his postgame address, he apologized for being tired. He sauntered down the stairs from the lectern and led a procession of individuals out of Quicken Loans Arena at a slow, methodical pace.

For James, home will be a temporary stop. Tomorrow is now today, and the Raptors await the Cavaliers' arrival to Toronto with Game 1 ready to tip off Tuesday night. His superhero efforts earned him a sequel this time, but how much longer can it last?

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