LeBron James deserved better.
His Cavaliers lost Game 3 of the NBA Finals to the Warriors on Wednesday, 118-113. Golden State’s lead is 3-0, and this thing’s all but formally over. That’s in spite of James pouring in 39 points on 15-of-27 shooting with 11 rebounds and nine assists. He was a plus-seven in a game his team lost by five points, the best margin on the team. It was one of the finest Finals performances in recent memories, and it went for naught.
From the time James entered the league in 2003 to his departure for the Heat in 2010, he carried Cavaliers teams that didn’t have elite talent around him. He took lots of hard-luck losses on those teams. But what happened on Wednesday will go down as an all-time squandering of one of the truly great playoff performances of James’ career.
James has been in these situations before.
In James’ 10 years in Cleveland, he’s lost a lot of games on nights when he’s turned in world-beating performances. Most of those were in James’ early years with the Cavs, before his four-year jaunt to Miami in the middle of his career. On 12 occasions before Wednesday, James had topped 35 points on 55 percent shooting or better in a regular season or playoff loss. That’s an arbitrary definition of a standard Dominant LeBron James Performance, but it’s a fair measurement. It means excellence in defeat.
Only once has it happened in a game with nearly these stakes. In Game 1 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic, LeBron was preposterous. He had 49 points of 20-of-30 shooting from the field, while none of his teammates scored more than 17. The entire Cleveland bench had five. Orlando won, 107-106. A LeBron buzzer-beater salvaged Game 2, but the Magic took the series in six. LeBron being let down by the rest of his team was an enduring theme in that series.
This loss to the Warriors might be more devastating.
It comes in the Finals, of course, and it effectively ends Cleveland’s title hopes. (The only drama remaining is about Golden State and 3-1 lead memes.) In 2009, LeBron’s best teammates were Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There was no Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. It’s remarkable that this Cavaliers team could blow a LeBron effort this great on this stage, even against the best basketball team on the planet.
It required a collaborative effort. Irving joined LeBron in having an outstanding game, with an efficient 38 points of his own. J.R. Smith was good, too, with 16 points on 10 shots from the field.
The rest of the Cavaliers were a car wreck being swept up by an avalanche and being swallowed by a sinkhole. Kyle Korver and Kevin Love made small contributions, but they were far from good. Tristan Thompson had one of the worst statistical games of his career: one shot attempt (which didn’t go in), three rebounds, and one near-killing of James. Non-LeBron, Non-Kyrie Cavs totaled 36 points on 9-of-34 shooting. In that Magic Game 1, non-LeBron Cavs had 57 on 23-of-58 — similar efficiency.
This game was different than the ‘09 Orlando debacle, in that LeBron at least got substantive help from one teammate. But the point remains that James delivered one of his all-time performances in the biggest game of the year, and the Cavaliers let him down. That Andre Iguodala stripped him of a corner three attempt in the final 10 seconds barely lessens James’ greatness or the rest of his team’s failure.
James is the world’s greatest player. This was a throwback of the worst kind.
Take every narrative about LeBron’s stupendousness and the rest of his team’s ineptitude from the decade he’s spent in Cleveland. Mix it together with the stakes and stage of an NBA Finals game against the best basketball team in the world, and you’ve got a cocktail of sadness unlike any other. The Cavs will regret wasting it forever.