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LeBron James is on an island against the Warriors

SB Nation's 2015 NBA Finals Guide

LeBron James is on an island.

There are technically other Cleveland Cavaliers players on the court, but the Golden State Warriors are, at best, secondarily concerned with these players. A normal help defender stands with their body facing their man and their eyes on the ball, ready to stick their man should a pass come his way.

Look at Shaun Livingston! Who is his man? Is it Iman Shumpert, behind him, safely defended by another Warriors player already? Is his man slightly off-screen? Is his man actually directly behind him, but imperceptibly small or very well camouflaged? Is his man sitting under the basket at the other end of the court, building a complex jigsaw puzzle? Did his man jump on a courtside Pegasus and fly out of Oracle Arena? I don't know, and he doesn't care. What matters is that his man is not a threat. LeBron is.

Considering LeBron played against the NBA's best defense and all 10 of their eyes were staring at him, he had an outstanding game. He finished with 44 points, the most in an NBA Finals game since Allen Iverson had 48 in that signature Game 1 of the 2001 Finals. He either scored or created 17 of the Cavaliers' final 18 points in regulation to force overtime. (The other point was a technical free throw scored by Kyrie Irving.)

He went in isolation with no pretense of secondary options and scored key bucket after key bucket. He very nearly took down the Warriors.

But he did not. Upon further observation, James played a brutal, unforgiving game: 46 minutes of tough work outside of his comfort zone. LeBron took 38 shots, the most of his career, postseason or regular season. He took 22 shots outside of the paint, the most he has ever taken in a playoff game. When Andre Iguodala was guarding him, James went 4-for-14 with three turnovers.

I'm sure that if LeBron had his way, he would not have chosen to dive again and again into the fray of five eager Warriors. I'm sure would not have chosen to take so many shots against a defense so ready to guard him. I'm sure he would not have tried to beat Iguodala, a perennially great defender, as often as he did. I'm sure he wouldn't have pulled up so often, as he much prefers layups and dunks to jumpers, the least consistent part of his game.

LeBron played this way because he had no other choice.


It would be unfair to say LeBron James is the only Cavalier who played well. But he has to make things happen for the other guys.

Timofey Mozgov had 16 points, but Mozgov isn't the type to create his own buckets. Seventy-nine percent of his baskets in the regular season were assisted. Every point he scored on Thursday came off of a pass.

Tristan Thompson was a beast on the boards with 15 rebounds and six offensive, but that's more or less the entirety of his game.

And many Cavaliers players were straight-up bad. Here the contributions of the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench:

Here is a 1,000 word summary of the performance of the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench.

Meanwhile, Golden State has a thriving bench. Marreese Speights came in and played the game Marreese Speights has spent his whole life dreaming of playing, cockily backing down defenders and hoisting jumpers en route to eight points. Festus Ezeli plays good spot minutes at center. Livingston plays nicely. Leandro Barbosa ran around like a chicken with his head cut off, but made me smile at least. Iguodala is technically a bench player. Andre Iguodala is technically a bench player!

The moment that I fully understood the Cavaliers would lose was with 2:30 left in overtime. The Cavaliers were only down four, but they asked James Jones to check into the game. I realized they were going to lose because it was overtime of an NBA Finals game and they were asking James Jones to play basketball.

The Warriors' stars can rest, because Golden State's bench is a well-armed militia. LeBron cannot rest, because Cleveland's bench is J.R. Smith spraying an AK-47 while Matthew Dellavedova tries to stab you with a stick.


It gets worse. Kyrie Irving, the only other Cavalier with the ability to create, is hurt again. He may play again this series. He may not.

If he doesn't, this means LeBron must either:

1) Play essentially every minute of every game, charging head-first into an incredibly talented defense waiting for him, hoping to create for himself or his limited teammates.

2) Let his teammates try to do things, which will fail 100 percent of the time.

This is not a choice.

The Warriors are smiling, because their defense is as well-drilled as you can get to stop the world's best player. This is what they want. LeBron will have to settle for more shots he hates. LeBron will have to continue trying to do work against Iguodala, who rankles him.

The Cavaliers are also smiling. This is the only road that doesn't lead to certain death.

We should be smiling, too, because Game 1 was amazing. LeBron James took on the best team in the league by himself, and it almost worked. In spite of their tremendous defensive work, and in spite of the light years between the two benches, Cleveland was one shot from winning.

But we also should be a little bit sad, because the outcome seems inevitable. It doesn't seem possible for one man to play as well as LeBron needs to play for as long as LeBron needs to play without any meaningful help.

LeBron James is on an island, and it doesn't seem like there is any hope of rescue.