The Cleveland Cavaliers were riding an emotional high heading into the NBA Finals. They had just swept the Atlanta Hawks and it seemed like everything was coming together. Point guard Kyrie Irving showed up in Game 4 after missing the previous two games with knee tendinitis and foot issues and played well. JR Smith and Iman Shumpert were hitting open jumpshots with regularity when LeBron drew the coverage as well. And most importantly, Cleveland was owning the boards behind the presence of glasseater Tristian Thompson. Some who followed the Cavaliers thought that they were peaking at the right time and had a very good shot to beat the Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors. But after Game 1, that picture has changed just a little bit. Both Iman Shumpert and JR Smith could not hit the broad side of a barn as they combined to go 5/19 for 15 points. Tristian Thompson and the Cavaliers were outrebounded by 3 total rebounds despite starting out crushing the Warriors on the boards. And most importantly and more damaging, Kyrie Irving went down awkwardly when trying to make a move with the basketball in overtime. The result was him limping to the locker room and not returning. The final score ended up being 108-100, but the Warriors were in complete control of the overtime and held the Cavaliers to one garbage time layup by LeBron James during that period. The look of joy turned into the look of consternation and frustration as we all saw over Kyrie’s face when asked about his injuries by media after the game. He looked like he did not have a good feeling about his injury and that was just the case, as he has a fractured kneecap and will be out for 3-4 months. First it was power forward Kevin Love and now it was Kyrie Irving that went down with a season-ending injury. The results are now on LeBron James while he is staring at a Warriors team that ended up winning despite not playing their best game. But this type of pressure is nothing new for LeBron.
James has been facing pressure ever since he landed in the NBA out of Akron, Ohio. The high school phenom was a great blend of size and speed and many thought he could transcend the game. Well, the jury is still out on if he transcended the game, but he sure has been a great player over his NBA career. James has climbed numerous lists in terms of assists, points, and rebounds for both the regular season and the postseason. And over time, he has gone from just making the playoffs to becoming a guy that is supposed to be in the NBA Finals every year. This year marks the fifth time in a row that he has been in the NBA Finals and this time he is up against a team that has been the best in the NBA all season long. The Golden State Warriors are solid from top to bottom and the good thing for them is they have not suffered any injuries to their players. But for LeBron, he has lost two of the team’s top three players during their run to the title. This team, as it stands, reminds some of Cleveland team of 2007. At that point and time, he took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals on his back. Looking at that team compared to this one is not a fair comparison because the talent gap is so huge between that 2007 team and this current team. However, James is expected to make it to the come through better than he did in the 2007 version of the Cavaliers. He will be expected to come out guns blazing trying to scratch and claw his team to the victory. If he is to fall short, then there will be unlimited amounts of memes made and put all over social media coming for him. And if he is to win and do the improbably, then there would be many that would go overboard with the praise and others that will downplay it like LeBron isn’t a special player. Many are thinking this series is over with the absence of Irving on the court, but when a great player is on the other side, things can happen that could upset that prediction.
As we saw in Game 1, LeBron went for 44 points against the Warriors. It was a great scoring game from him, his best in his NBA Finals history. But along with the loss, there were other things that were not ideal for him in this game. LeBron only had six assists and he shot the basketball 38 times to get his 44 points. Not exactly what you would expect from LeBron. With Kyrie out for the rest of the series, the focus will be on LeBron to initiate the offense as well as score. In the last game, it seemed as if the Warriors were comfortable putting one defender on LeBron and letting him have at it in the post. Well, that also helped him negate getting his teammates involved in the game. For example, Cavaliers forward Tristian Thompson scored two points in the first quarter. He never even scored again the entire game. He is just one of the players that did not get enough touches in positions to make some things happen. In Game 2, LeBron has to find that happy balance of assisting and scoring for his team. When LeBron attacks the rim, the Warriors have no choice but to help his way. And when they do that, LeBron needs to spot guys like JR Smith and Iman Shumpert spotting up to knock down shots. A suggestion for Cleveland head coach David Blatt on what he could do that would help LeBron see the floor would be to put him in the middle of the floor for pick-and-rolls a few more times. This will allow LeBron much better vision of where his teammates are and it also allows for him to be more of who he wants to be. LeBron can be lethal when he has it going scoring, but he is the most lethal when he can get his teammates consistently good looks from the attention he draws. And getting his teammates involved is the only way he can win in this series. Ideally, for LeBron and the Cavs to have a shot to win, the line LeBron needs to average or come close to averaging is at least 28 points, 10 assists, 4 hockey assists and 10 rebounds. And as far as how he scores, he needs to score in a more efficient manner. If he is not efficient and incorporating his supporting cast, then this game could get ugly quickly and the series will be done rather quickly as well. Golden State is definitely playing at a high level and the stats and injuries seem to be stacked against him, but great players can be the deodorant that covers up weaknesses of a team.
LeBron James is expected to carry this team going forward and some think he will carry an undermanned Cleveland team to the NBA title. If he is able to do that, then this feat will be by far his best one. But if he isn’t able to bring it home, the extreme frustration and hate will probably flood social media and there will be questions about his greatness surrounding us once again. But LeBron is used to this and more from and everyone that has viewed, prodded, poked and overexamined his career in the NBA. The focus is on how the Cavs will respond to all this adversity and more importantly, how LeBron will lead them through this adversity.