LeBron James is the best team in the Eastern Conference. By himself. Grab nine guys hanging around at UCLA, put them together with James and they win the East. He has won six consecutive Eastern Conference titles, which is really an amazing feat.
However, the Western Conference has three or four, maybe even five teams, that LeBron James cannot beat alone. The Warriors are obviously the best of the best. And this NBA Finals is quickly turning into a mockery.
For comparative purposes, here are the Warriors best players during their last four games:
Game 6 against Oklahoma City: Klay Thompson. Scored 41, including 11 three-pointers, many of them seemingly impossible shots.
Game 7 against Oklahoma City: Stephen Curry. Scored 36 with eight assists, five rebounds, and just three turnovers.
Game 1 against Cleveland: Shaun Livingston (20 points, 8-of-10 shooting) or Andre Iguodala (12 points, seven rebounds, six assists, incredible defense, plus-21 on the day).
Game 2 against Cleveland: Draymond Green. Scored 28, with seven boards, five assists, a steal and just one turnover.
You see where this is going, right? Let’s look at Cleveland’s best player the last four games:
Game 5 against Toronto: LeBron James. Had 23 points, six rebounds, eight assists, dominating floor presence.
Game 6 against Toronto: LeBron James. Had 33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, unstoppable force.
Game 1 against Golden State: LeBron James. Had near triple-double, 23 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, a couple of steals and a block. Not good enough.
Game 2 against Golden State: LeBron James. Had 19 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, four steals (also seven turnovers). He played only 34 minutes because the game was out of hand.
On any given night, Golden State has five or six players who might be the star of the team. Cleveland has one.
Here’s the irony: LeBron James doesn’t want to go it alone. He has never wanted that. It’s probably the character trait most different from greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. They expected — and, I suspect, enjoyed — being the sole focus, the sun around which everything revolved. But that’s not LeBron James. I have long been convinced that while there were many reasons LeBron left Cleveland the first time, the most compelling of those reasons was that he felt alone. Year after year after year, he played divine basketball, as well as anyone has ever played, and the best the Cavaliers could do was surround him with laborers like Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao along with creaky middle-aged versions of Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison and Ben Wallace.
Remember in “Airplane” when the kid told Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “My Dad says you don’t work hard enough on defense.” Then Jabbar explodes in fury and grabs the kid by the collar:
“Listen kid, I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. Tell your old man to drag Unseld and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!”
I think that’s how James felt at the end in Cleveland: Tell your old man to drag Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to 66 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals!” It’s no wonder he fled for Miami, where the great Dwyane Wade could be the star some nights, where Chris Bosh could do some of the scoring and Shane Battier could play the shutdown defense.
When he came back to Cleveland, the Cavaliers made sure to surround him with stars. Here’s Kyrie Irving, a whirlwind guard who can finish like no guard in the NBA. Here’s Kevin Love, a 6-foot-10 force who averaged 26 points, 13 boards and made almost 200 three-pointers his last year in Minnesota. Here’s Tristan Thompson, a demon on the offensive glass. Here are a bunch of solid three-point shooters. Yes, LeBron, this time it will be different. This time, the Cavaliers insisted, we have your back.
And then they reach the NBA FInals and …
… LeBron is all alone again.
* * *
Last year, you could understand it. Love and Irving got hurt. James really had no choice but to play Superman, and he did — averaging 36 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists for the series. But the effort took its toll on him. He shot just 40 percent for the series. In the last three games, he could not impose his will, and Golden State won all three with ease. The best Cleveland could hope for this year was that when the two teams met again, the Cavaliers would be healthy.
Well, the Cavaliers were healthy coming into this series. And … James is alone again.
Irving has been atrocious, shooting 12 of 36 and getting schooled on defense. Kevin Love had a few moments in Game 1, but he was passive and virtually non-existent in Game 2 before getting elbowed in the head (Cleveland doctors inexcusably let him stay in the game; it was only after a disoriented Love left on his own a little later that he was entered into the concussion protocol). Tristan Thompson has been barely visible, which is better than J.R. Smith who has gone into full cloak mode.*
*A quick question about Channing Frye: Where exactly has he gone? He averaged 18 minutes a game against Atlanta and Toronto, and he was a three-point miracle. He made 25 of 43 three-pointers in those 10 games, that’s 58 percent. In this series so far, he has averaged five minutes per game and has shot a grand total of one three-pointer. I get that it might be difficult to fit him in against the Warriors — who will he guard? — but he was a real weapon, and this is a team in dire need of weapons. Cavaliers rookie coach Tyronn Lue has looked a bit over his head so far.
And James has looked utterly discouraged so far. He has put up some numbers because he’s simply too good NOT to put up numbers. But he’s made no difference at all. His jump shot is gone, so Golden State’s defense essentially BEGS him to shoot. His bullet passes are going through his teammates’ hands. He is having trouble finishing around the basket. At one point on Sunday night, he was called for traveling on back-to-back possessions. When has that ever happened before in his career?
Let’s face it: He looks a bit lost. It’s ludicrous and wrong to blame LeBron James for the Cavaliers troubles — it’s like blaming gravity because you fell into a mud puddle. But there are limits even to his powers. Golden State just had the NBA regular season for the ages. James cannot beat them.
And James certainly understands this better than anyone. Some years ago, just before he left Cleveland, he played a dreadful playoff game against the Boston Celtics, probably the worst playoff game of his entire career. Afterward, he famously grumbled, “I spoil people with my play.” I think he was in a bad place and he was lashing out at the absurd expectations that have haunted him and because he had no one to turn to.
I sense some of that same frustration in him now. LeBron doesn’t want to do this alone. He’s one of the great passers in the history of the league. He’s one of the great two-way players in the history of the league. He’s one of the great big-game performers in the history of the league.
But what does any of that mean when you’re all alone? Sure, it’s possible that his teammates will pick it up come the return to Cleveland, but let’s face the inevitable: The ending is written. Golden State is going to beat the Cavaliers. The only questions left are the final score and how hard LeBron James is willing to work to make that final score look more presentable.