So here we are, with LeBron’s vocational toes curled off the cliff, 48 minutes from ephemeral glory or eternal ignominy. He’s four quarters from extending this series (by which I mean making it a series), or from ominous echoes calling him a big-time player with big-game allergies.
Make no mistake, Cleveland can lose this series with every ruby still glued to the King’s crown. But they can’t lose tonight. He can’t lose tonight. Make no mistake, this is a referendum on LeBron’s big-game wares.
Maybe the Cavs — who still looked overmatched, if not overwhelmed, by the Warriors’ Matrix-style shooting and obvious splendor and swagger — can lose in six and learn from this. But to get bum-rushed off the court, by a team playing without it’s emotional catalyst, would be an embarrassment of epic contours.
LeBron can lose this series and save some face, but only if he wins tonight. The cosmos are clearly aligned for this. Here’s why…
– The Cavs have to win this game to stay alive.
– LeBron wants to keep his handle as the unofficial NBA MVP.
– LeBron is averaging 31.9 points per game in elimination games, highest in NBA history.
– The Warriors are due for a letdown.
– The Warriors are without their hardwood spark plug, Draymond Green.
– The Warriors have a +154 scoring margin in the playoffs with Green on the court, and -15 without him.
Ultimately, wins and losses are the only stat that really matters. And on that end of the ledger, LeBron is lacking.
We’ve all lamented the dearth of dominant players on his flank. He was way overmatched against the Spurs in his first trip to the NBA Finals. Then he famously (and infamously) migrated to Miami, for the sun, fun and finals appearances. Then he choked against the Mavericks, leading LeBron haters to question his moxie in the most important games.
Then he got that first ring. Then he got another.
Then San Antonio sent the Heat, and LeBron, packing. But was San Antonio really that much better than Miami? No.
Was Golden State that much better last year? Yes. But we’ve been told that last year didn’t really count, because LeBron played without his wildly gifted wingmen.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are here and healthy this year. Yet we’re seeing eerily similar results. In fact, if Golden State ends the series tonight, it will have been easier than last year, when LeBron was playing sans a full deck.
No one applauded more loudly than yours truly when LeBron shocked the basketball and business world by coming home. In leaving the palm trees and blue skies of Miami for the smoky skies of Northeast Ohio, he assumed the twin burdens of delivering the team’s first NBA title and the town’s first title, in any sport, in over 50 years.
He also commandeered the role of GM, essentially trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love. How different (if not better) would the Cavs be right now with Wiggins’ young legs and galloping game? No doubt the sight of LeBron leading a fast break with Irving and Wiggins has floated through a few dream bubbles over the last two years.
It’s all on LeBron. He’s also picked or endorsed his opulent monikers. Chosen One. King James. LBJ.
LeBron can endure another loss in the NBA Finals. He can afford to lose NBA Finals No. 5. But he can’t afford to lose Game 5. There’s too much in his favor tonight for him to walk off the hardwood with his head up.
To paraphrase the NBA’s quintessential insider, Stephen A Smith, you can’t be a king without the crown.
It’s not enough that he loses the NBA Finals with alarming regularity, he’s also been supplanted as the game’s official boss. That title, along with the NBA title, is currently in the soft hands of Stephen Curry.
And there was a particular, personal and poignant statement made when Curry won the NBA MVP award by unanimous vote. Not even Wilt or Russell or Kareem won it by said vote. Not even the player nonpareil, His Airness, Michael Jordan, won it by such a vote.
Some of us are not ready to hand that handle to Curry. But if he and his Warriors come out and play tonight, and hand LeBron another devastating loss…
Then it may be safe to say that King James, while still royalty, is no longer king of the basketball court.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.