CLEVELAND – LeBron James – disappointed, subdued, contemplative, plaintive – had all the words to describe how the Cleveland Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors and how he lost the Finals for the fourth time in six trips.
Five words encapsulated what happened to James and the Cavaliers: “We ran out of talent.”
The Cavaliers were without guard Kyrie Irving and forward Kevin Love for several playoff games, Love missing the last three round and Irving in and out of rotation in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals and out for the last five games against Warriors.
Center Anderson Varejao also missed more than three-fourths of the regular season and playoffs.
“Tried as much as we could to try to make up for those guys, but it’s a lot of talent sitting in suits,” James said.
“I don’t know any other team ‑‑ I’ve been watching basketball for a long time. I’m an historian of the game. I don’t know any other team that’s gotten to The Finals without two All‑Stars. I cannot remember thinking of it. I can’t remember in the back ‑‑ I don’t even know if it’s ever happened, for a team to lose two All‑Stars and still be able to make it to The Finals.”
Then he put a fine point on the ingredients of playoff success.
“I’ve had a lot of playoff runs, been on both ends, and I know one thing that you’ve got to have during the playoff run, you’ve got to be healthy,” James said. “You’ve got to be healthy. You’ve got to be playing great at the right time. You’ve got to have a little luck.”
All the things the Warriors were, the Cavaliers were not.
That shorthanded Cleveland reached the Finals and extended Golden State to six games was an accomplishment, if not minor miracle.
What team loses two All-Stars and another quality big man and still go deep in the Finals? A team with LeBron James.
“Guarding LeBron James has to be the hardest job in basketball,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
In the Finals, James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, becoming the first player to be the leading scorer, rebounder and assist man in the Finals, both teams included. Four of 11 Finals MVP voters put James on their ballot.
No other player in postseason history averaged at least those stats in a series – not Jordan, not Bird, not Oscar, not Magic. In Game 6, he had 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists, the 59th playoff game of his career (most in NBA history) and 11 this postseason with at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists.
And it still wasn’t enough.
“When you fall short, it hurts and it eats at you,” he said. “And it hurts me to know that I wish I could have done better and done more and just put a little bit more effort or whatever the case may be to help us get over the hump. But it just wasn’t our time.”
James shot 39.8% from the floor and 31% on three-pointers and bemoaned his efficiency. But that’s what the situation called for with the Cavs missing players. They needed James’ high-volume offense.
Why wasn’t he efficient? Not only does James create opportunities for teammates, Love and Irving opened the floor for James. It works both ways, but with the Cavaliers shooting less than 40% in the Finals, it made it easy for Golden State to load up defensively on James – double-team him, converge on him as he drove to the basket – and make it difficult for James to score.
Cleveland’s perimeter shooting from J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones was not good enough to create opportunities for James.
“I don’t enjoy being as non‑efficient as I was. I don’t enjoy that,” James said. “I don’t enjoy dribbling the ball for countless seconds on the shot clock and the team looking at me to make a play. We had 14 assists tonight. I had nine of them. I did not enjoy that. That’s not winning basketball.”
And yet that was the only way the Cavs had a chance to win.
Throughout the past few postseasons, James has a penchant for telling reporters that he wants his team to give its best effort and live the result win or lose. It’s a way James has come to cope with Finals disappointments. He once talked to Jerry West about West losing his first seven NBA Finals before finally winning a championship.
But they still sting in the moment. Losing in the Finals makes James question all the hard work he puts in.
“I always look at it would I rather not make the playoffs or lose in The Finals? I don’t know. I don’t know,” James said. “I’ve missed the playoffs twice. I lost in The Finals four times. I’m almost starting to be like I’d rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in The Finals. It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn’t make the playoffs and I didn’t have a shot at it.”
Deep, thoughtful words.
The joy of winning a title seeped into his conscious or subconscious thought.
“But then I lock back in and I start thinking about how fun it is to compete during the playoffs and the first round, the second round, and Eastern Conference Finals,” James said. “If I’m lucky enough to get here again, it will be fun to do it.
“But put my body through a lot, you know, but it’s the price for your body feeling this way for winning. Did I win? I didn’t win a championship, but I’ve done a lot of good things in this first year back, and hopefully I can continue it.”
Losing in the Finals is better than having never lost in the Finals. James will continue to take his chances for another joyous experience.