Published On: Mon, Jun 4th, 2018

Has LeBron James carried these Cavaliers as far as he can?

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OAKLAND, Calif. – Imagine scoring 51 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, then pouring in 29 points and coming one rebound short of a triple-double in Game 2 while playing with an injured eye.

Imagine averaging 40.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 10.5 assists, and shooting 55 percent from the field through two games in the NBA Finals.

Imagine doing all of that and still losing twice by double digits, heading back to Cleveland with an enormous 2-0 series deficit.

This is LeBron James‘ reality. He has played entire games in these playoffs. He has rescued his team in two Game 7 wins, one at home and one on the road – and the latter, described by his head coach as the best performance he’d ever seen, sent the Cavaliers to their fourth consecutive Finals.

James has been extraordinary over the first two games of this series, continuing what could be the greatest individual postseason run in NBA history. He’s made perfect reads on offense – finding his teammates for open looks and attacking the Golden State Warriors’ defensive switches – and has done everything humanly possible to give his team a chance to win.

“It sucks to lose,” James said following Sunday’s 122-109 defeat. “It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have and you prep and your mind is in it and your body is in it and you come out on the losing end. But nothing would ever take the love of the game away from me. I think the love of the competition is something I live for and something I wake up every day and train my body for and train my mind for.”

Through two losses in Golden State, there doesn’t appear to be a realistic path to winning four games against this Warriors team, even with James performing at a level that’s arguably changing the way we conceive of what a single player can do for his team in the postseason.

Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant all scored in double digits in the first half Sunday as the Warriors opened up a 13-point lead. Golden State’s trio of stars finished with a combined 79 points, while Curry finished with an NBA Finals-record nine made 3-pointers.

The Warriors are 9-0 in postseason games when Curry, Thompson, and Durant score in double digits. They’re difficult to beat on an average night. When all three of their offensive stars are clicking, it is impossible.

“I don’t think we’re close to our ceiling,” Draymond Green said. “Which is good for us. I think we can play so much better. We’re going to need that going out on the road. Just to continue to play better and better. You want to peak at the right time, and to be trending upwards is always great.”

The Warriors are talking about improvement while sitting two wins away from a second consecutive title, and a third in four years. Meanwhile, history isn’t on James’ side; NBA Finals teams have a 29-4 series record when they go up 2-0.

The last team to come back from such a deficit in the Finals was the 2016 Cavaliers, who fell behind 3-1 before beating the Warriors in seven games. But that team had Kyrie Irving, who formed a tandem with James that was capable of winning a head-to-head matchup with the Warriors.

Since then, the Cavaliers have subtracted Irving, while the Warriors added Durant. The equation has shifted dramatically in Golden State’s favor.

James didn’t look for his jump shot in Game 2 the way he did during Thursday’s Game 1 masterpiece, and though he didn’t make excuses, it’s hard to believe his lingering eye injury isn’t affecting him on offense. In the first half Sunday, James didn’t attempt a 3-pointer, or make a field goal outside of the restricted area.

But he was still close to a triple-double by halftime, even as his teammates continued coming up short on the shot opportunities James created for them. Between Games 1 and 2, the Cavaliers sounded optimistic that they’d start making their wide-open looks from three, especially after a disappointing 10-for-37 showing from beyond the arc in Game 1.

Game 2 was no better. The Cavaliers made just nine of their 27 3-point attempts. Kevin Love had another 20-point, 10-rebound performance, but he’s shooting 4-for-16 from three through two games.

J.R. Smith, who was serenaded by the Oracle Arena crowd with an MVP chant when he shot free throws in the first half, finished 2-for-9 from the field. Jordan Clarkson made one field goal in eight minutes and hasn’t recorded an assist since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Raptors. Kyle Korver didn’t make a field goal in 17 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Warriors got complementary scoring from JaVale McGee, Shaun Livingston, and David West. McGee and Livingston were perfect from the field, making all 11 of their combined field-goal attempts. West hit his first 3-pointer since Nov. 4, 2017.

The odds are stacked against the Cavaliers, but James isn’t overwhelmed by the challenge.

“No, I don’t really get caught up in that,” James said. “The odds have been stacked up against me since I was an adolescent. So I put our team in position to try to win a championship, to compete for a championship. You know, it’s my job to make sure that we’re as focused, laser-focused as possible, do my job, and continue to instill confidence into my teammates until the last horn sounds. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that, which I will.”

One sequence in the fourth quarter of Game 2 perfectly illustrated the gulf between these two teams, and the magnitude of the burden on James’ shoulders. Early in the fourth, James hit a 3-pointer at the top of the key that cut Golden State’s lead to single digits. It felt like a potential turning point for the Cavs – a window of opportunity for them to make a push, even the series, and put the pressure on the Warriors as the series shifted to Cleveland.

Instead, after James and the Cavs spent the second half exerting all of their energy to prevent the game from getting away, Curry responded to James’ three by hitting one on the next possession – and, for good measure, another one on the next trip down, free and easy. The lead was back to 13. Cleveland called a timeout, and Game 2 was effectively over.

The series might be, too.

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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