He must be perfect. Twice in a row. Against a Boston Celtics team that can taste its ahead-of-schedule trip to the NBA Finals.
Boston's 96-83 win Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals puts James and the Cavs on the brink of elimination and all that'll come with it: speculation about the franchise's future, James' plans for the final phase of his career and the fate of relevant basketball in Cleveland as we know it.
Anything less than James' best, and the Cavs are finished.
James wasn't perfect Wednesday, but he was plenty good, certainly better than his teammates. Even if that isn't saying much.
He put up 26 points on 11-of-22 shooting, 10 rebounds and five assists. His six turnovers hurt, but many of those were the result of Boston's disruptive length and shrewd double-teams, which shuttered passing windows as soon as they opened. Considering how no other Cavalier had more than six made field goals or two assists, you can excuse James' mistakes in light of the load he carried.
It was enough to wear anyone down.
George Hill and JR Smith combined for two made buckets and respective on-court plus-minus figures of minus-21 and minus-19. Head coach Tyronn Lue held Kyle Korver out for the entire first and third quarters, instead riding Smith on the theory that...well...it's hard to say.
The Celtics have targeted Korver on defense, but the Cavs scored a pitiful 83 points in Game 5. Cleveland needed his gravity and shooting. Lue's explanation for holding out one of his best offensive weapons was charitably curious:
Stranger still, Lue rested James and Kevin Love together to start the fourth quarter, allowing the Celtics to expand their lead from 16 to 21 before James checked back in for Smith.
Defensively, the Cavs competed, holding Boston scoreless for nine straight possessions in the fourth quarter and yielding only a 36.5 percent conversion rate on the night. That defensive effort should have been enough to win. Instead, because James was less than perfect—and because his supporting cast abandoned him yet again—it produced a blowout loss.
The contrast in star dynamics between Cleveland and Boston could hardly be more pronounced.
Jayson Tatum led the Celts with 24 points, but he didn't have to play at a world-beating level for his team to win. Boston had four other scorers in double figures, great defensive effort from all parties involved and brushed off a 3-of-15 dud from Terry Rozier in the easy victory. These banged-up Celtics don't have a transcendent star, but that means they don't have to rely on one for survival. They can win in more than one way.
Cleveland is different. Its success depends on James scoring in droves, setting up teammates who can't create for themselves and establishing a contagious defensive tone. All are tributaries of the same river: Victory flows from James and James alone.
So, what now?
Cleveland has to play Korver more, and it might want to avoid letting Semi Ojeleye dictate its rotations. It could also move Love back to center to space the floor and create more scoring chances. Boston pushed the Cavs away from that look earlier in the series by targeting Love and Korver on defense, but when you score only 83 points in the bogged-down slog that was Game 5, anything that loosens up the offense is worth reconsidering.
Ultimately, everything comes back to James.
Can he go for 44 points if Boston keeps its help defenders glued to shooters?
Can he hand out a dozen dimes and pick his spots with an 8-of-12 shooting night like he did in Game 3?
Even when James both scored with volume and distributed efficiently in Game 2 (42 points on 16-of-29 shooting, 12 assists and 10 rebounds), the Cavs still lost by 13. That's most troubling of all for the Cavaliers. Even when James does everything, it doesn't assure a good result.
Counting James out has been a sucker's game for a long time, but the straits appear to be as dire as they've ever been. The Celtics are 10-0 at home in these playoffs, and James and the Cavs will have to defend home court in Game 6 and then close this thing out with a win in Boston.
James will have to do all of that with fatigue creeping in:
It's just...too much. No one can log 82 games in his 15th season, drag a deeply flawed and dubiously organized roster to the brink of elimination and stave it off with two do-or-die wins. It's impossible. It's unreasonable. It's too much to ask of anyone.
So, of course, we're asking it of James.