We’ve been talking a lot about greatness in sports over the past year. Not just mid-prime Ledecky Margin of Victory Greatness, but Success Past Expected Window Greatness. Knowing what we know about our most successful athletes — our Venus Williamses and Tom Bradys and Usain Bolts competing in major finals and winning rings and gold medals on the wrong side of 30 — seems predictable in retrospect. Of course it all happened. But surely any fan of Michael Phelps raised an eyebrow with concern when he announced his comeback in 2015. Even the most devoted Patriots fans hung their heads while Lady Gaga crooned from the center of Houston’s NRG Stadium. When even the greatest athletes or teams struggle, we begin to doubt them if they’re on the downslope of Career Hill.
That’s why the air of inevitability surrounding LeBron James and his teams has always struck me as strange. Despite their struggles, there never seems to be much doubt that they’ll reach the Finals. We’ve been wringing our hands over the Cavs — who are 12–13 since the All-Star break — for weeks now, but always with a caveat: Regardless of seeding, we know we’ll be seeing a different team and a different LeBron in the playoffs.
It’s time to start wondering if that’s true. The Cavs didn’t just lose a 126–125 contest to the Hawks on Sunday. They collapsed catastrophically. Cleveland entered the fourth quarter leading by 26 points, and Ty Lue puzzlingly left James, Kyrie Irving, and the rest of his best players in the game. Still, Atlanta charged back, tying the game at the buzzer on a Paul Millsap jumper.
In the extra period, Cleveland led by five with under three minutes remaining but played carelessly on the offensive end — missing layups, throwing errant passes, and conceding needless fouls. With under two minutes remaining in overtime, James fouled out, and with 1:12 left, Atlanta took its first lead of the game. The final minute was back and forth, but the Hawks wouldn’t squander their momentum. The game was over by the final possession. An Irving 3 at the buzzer pushed the final score to a cosmetic one-possession difference.
This was Cleveland’s most worrying loss of the year. Lue had indicated that he has no interest in conceding the top seed to Boston, and keeping his stars in the game only reinforced that. He challenged his team, and they didn’t meet the challenge. James played nearly 47 minutes while Irving and Kevin Love combined to play 87, and the Cavs came away with nothing. Cleveland paid a heavy price for a loss. “I thought we thought we’d just mess around with the game until it was time to knuckle down,” said Lue after the game. “By that time, they already had confidence. That’s who we’ve been. That’s who we are. I hate it.”
The Cavs are the defending champions, and their best player hasn’t missed the Finals in six years. We judge them on a Champion’s Curve, where the regular season is no indication of the True Cavaliers™. Even after this loss, I feel the need to hedge and wonder what tricks James has in store for the playoffs. LeBron, even in his 30s, is still LeBron. Even in the loss, he had a triple-double. But his coach and teammates look like they may not be up to the challenge ahead of them. For the Cavs, maybe this is what the wrong side of the hill looks like.