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The King Is Down—and Maybe Out

LeBron James is no stranger to playoff adversity, but after Cleveland’s collapse in Game 2, what exactly does he have left to counter the Celtics’ attack?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James has seen some shit. If you didn’t know that by now, after nearly 1,400 games, he’s happy to tell you. He was unfazed a month ago by the first playoff-opening loss of his career, saying, “I was down 3-1 in the Finals. So, I’m the last guy to ask about how you’re going to feel the next couple days.” In the wake of the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss in Boston on Sunday, he reminded the assembled press that he never played NCAA ball, and so he’s not familiar with one loss sealing his postseason fate. “I have zero level of concern at this stage,” he said. He’s basically whittled down the “ringz!” defense to a knowing smirk. All he needs is a cigarette tucked behind his ear.

He had a point, of course. Because he’s LeBron, for one, but also because he’s proved himself in these situations time and time again. Heading into Tuesday night, LeBron was just 10-6 in Game 2s following a loss in Game 1, according to Kram Stats & Info. But he was 10-2 in the same situation over the past decade, with the two losses coming against the Warriors in the past two NBA Finals. In the conference finals specifically, LeBron was 3-1 in Game 2s following a loss in Game 1, with the lone defeat coming in 2007. Over the past decade, the ultimate adjustment in any postseason game had been LeBron with game tape and something to prove.

His monster performance in Tuesday’s 107-94 loss—a 42-point triple-double in which he shot 55 percent from the floor—was all but assumed by the time he was spotted working himself into a lather about 10 hours before tipoff. He scored half of his points in the first quarter alone, with most of his makes coming with a hand in his face. He connected on more 3-pointers (four) by halftime than he did in four second-round games against Toronto combined. Just like he had in the face of a 1-0 deficit in Round 1, James was prepared to issue the proper response, regardless if it meant doing almost all of it by himself. “He’s LeBron” has been the sliver of hope throughout all of the blown coverages and lineup shuffles of this godforsaken Cavs season, the only reasonable counterargument to the reams of objective proof that this team was not good enough. But there he was, delivering again, as he has for going on eight years in the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs.

But by the end of the third quarter, LeBron looked fallible, and it wasn’t just because of the lingering effects of a neck strain he suffered in a second-quarter collision with Jayson Tatum that briefly sent him back to the locker room. The Celtics’ relentless defense took dominion over the game in a way that only James and previous few other elite players can on offense. The turnaround jumpers James drilled under pressure at the start began caroming out. Whether it was the defense or James deferring to the open man, or if one led to the other, the shots also were no longer coming from him as often (he took 13 shots in 11.5 minutes in the first quarter, but just seven in 12 minutes in the third). And outside of Kevin Love, who had over 20 points for the fourth time in the past five games, no other player on this patchwork roster could provide much relief.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue again frantically mined the depths of his bench in search of any semblance of worthy support for James. Tristan Thompson started his second game of the postseason, despite being a ghost for more games in the past month than not. Larry Nance Jr. reemerged after barely being seen in the second round. Rodney Hood again saw double-digit minutes, much to the surprise (and horror) of fans and media alike:

All told, the nine Cavaliers other than James and Love totaled 30 points on 36.4 percent shooting. J.R. Smith alone went 0-for-7 and effectively sealed the Cavs’ fate by incurring a flagrant 1 and a technical by pushing Al Horford in midair and then shoving Marcus Smart when engaged by the bulldog guard in response. In an instant, Smith had cost Cleveland four more points than he would score on the night.

LeBron, at age 33, pushed his personal boundaries this regular season unlike ever before. He played all 82 games for the first time in his career. He led the league in minutes played. His raw production went up, not down, in his 15th season. But LeBron has come face to face with his limitations this postseason. He had to scarf down orange slices to keep from cramping in Game 7 against Indiana despite proclaiming midgame that he would go all 48 minutes. The flawed roster—which he is in part culpable for through years of short-sighted, win-now deals—had him facing elimination in the first round for the first time. The loafing on defense has exacerbated the defensive flaws the team has had for years. And though his mastery of micro-coasting is yet another example of his unparalleled guile, the subtext is hard to ignore: LeBron is old.

In the stacked West, even the tiniest flaw will be your undoing. The Trail Blazers won 49 games behind their dynamo backcourt and a refurbished defense; it was all torn apart in an instant by a barrage of traps and Jrue Holiday shade. A team constructed to upend the Warriors was virtually blown off the court by a fully engaged Kevin Durant. In the East, however, one dominant individual can be enough to lift a team through a wide-open field. After three seasons of Warriors-Cavaliers, we’ve been preconditioned to expect an inevitability from each conference. That’s what LeBron had projected in the Raptors series. But through two games of the Eastern finals, the only thing that’s been inevitable is the Cavaliers’ collapse under the Celtics’ suffocating defense.

LeBron has seen this shit, too. He has been down 2-0 six times in his career. Asked Tuesday about his confidence after losing a second game, James again sought comfort in comic relief. After answering six questions in a row with Love by his side, James said, “The only way I probably won’t get no sleep tonight is if Kev don’t get asked a question. I’m going to lose a lot of sleep if someone doesn’t ask him a question.”

But the levity ends there. James is 2-4 in series in which his team lost the first two games, with the only wins coming in the 2016 Finals against the Warriors and against the Pistons in the 2007 East finals. In the latter, James was the young upstart upending the established hierarchy and overpowering a near-historic defense. These days, it’s hard to know whether the past is on James’s side, or whether his dominance in the East is already a thing of the past.