On the eve of his eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron James finds himself in a familiar position. He’s leading the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors for the fourth year in a row. The matchup should be a continuation of what has become an annual showdown between those teams. But within all of this familiarity lies uncertainty for James and the Cavs. This may be the same old Warriors that he’s facing, but he’s going to battle with a Cavaliers team that bears little resemblance to the ones he went to battle with in the last three years.
This is the burden James has been carrying on his shoulders all season long. No superstar in recent memory has had to do what he’s done just to drag his team to the Finals. He’s already played 100 games this season, logged almost 4,000 minutes, and has had to do without the help of Kyrie Irving, the playmaking wizard of a point guard that has served as his sidekick in the last three seasons.
In the playoffs alone, James is already averaging 41.3 minutes, a staggering number that encapsulates the kind of heavy lifting he’s been forced to do just to get here. Sometimes, it looked like even his superhuman exploits wouldn’t be enough to carry the Cavs to the Finals. The sweep of the Toronto Raptors aside, Cleveland had to survive a pair of seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics. In all of those games, James has had to carry the load in ways he’s never done in the past, doing all of it in his 15th season at the age of 33. We often talk of this man’s indefatigable stamina, but even the most finely-tuned of athletes have their physical breaking points.
It’s no wonder that as the Cavs celebrated their trip to the Finals, James was in the background, head bowed, knees iced, wondering what kind of fight he has left against a team that’s going into the series as one of the heaviest favorites in NBA Finals history.
He doesn’t have Irving to help ease his load anymore. He may not even have Kevin Love, his All-Star running mate who’s currently in the league’s concussion protocol. His availability in the Finals is a question mark. Instead, James will have to beat a Warriors team hoping to get semblances of consistency from guys like Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, and JR Smith. Given what we’ve seen, that’s a tough task.
It’s hard to imagine a team with LeBron in it being totally outmatched in star power and lineup versatility, but that’s exactly what we have with this current Cavaliers team. It’s no secret that almost everyone thinks that Golden State’s going to romp its way to a sweep, and those who are giving Cleveland one game in this series are only doing it out of respect for LeBron’s greatness.
But as great as LeBron’s been, there’s no going around the sense of doomed inevitability that this series presents. For Cleveland to even have a chance at making this a series, James has to elevate his game to another level from what he’s already done in this playoff run. He’s averaging 34 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game. By all accounts, those numbers already represent one of the greatest playoff performances in the history of the league. His 33.0 PER in the playoffs would be the fourth highest of all time.
Unfortunately, as gaudy as the stats are, they also show how bleak it is for the Cavs that those numbers might not even be enough to beat the Golden State Warriors. If Cleveland wants to turn this into an all-time upset, LeBron needs to have another level in his tank. He needs to play the best basketball of his career over the next week or so. There’s no wiggle room there.
It’s not even a question of whether he can do it. At the end of the day, he doesn’t have a choice.