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The Weight on LeBron’s Shoulders Is Adding Up

Adding the ghosts of Game 1’s meltdown to an already Sisyphean workload proved to be too much to bear for the best player in the world

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The remnants of last Thursday’s Cavaliers’ meltdown were present everywhere you looked in Game 2. Warriors fans at Oracle Arena reserved some of their loudest cheers for their Game 1 hero, J.R. Smith, adorning him with sarcastic MVP chants at the free throw line and waving signs with the same insincere sentiment. Each misfire from Kevin Love and Jeff Green, who shot a combined 2-for-14 from behind the arc in Game 1, ripped open wounds that had two days to heal. And then there was LeBron James, showing the ill effects from getting poked in the eye by Draymond Green on a drive in the previous game. Half of his eye was blood red; the iris appeared to be the only thing keeping the blood from invading the whites of his eyes.

The series—which the Warriors now lead 2-0 after a 122-103 bludgeoning by Golden State on Sunday—was always going to be painted as LeBron v. Everyone. Game 2 revealed exactly what that meant. The handful of possessions where James was triple-teamed were manifestations of the kind of three-dimensional chess he’d been playing all night. It wasn’t just figuring out how to navigate around the actual opposition or his team’s general inability, it was moving around the ghosts of Game 1 and the faith they’d stripped from an already-feeble supporting cast. LeBron’s triple-threat stance on Sunday was more often than not a shrug with deadened shoulders.

After his all-time-great 51-point explosion on Thursday, LeBron altered his approach out of necessity. James spent most of Game 2 in search of lightness, in search of anything or anyone who might be able to carry some of the slack that had accumulated in such short time against these Warriors. James had 13 assists, accounting for 31 Cavaliers points on the night; five went for 3-pointers, but there were countless more left on the table, often in heartbreaking fashion.

Halfway through the second quarter, LeBron split the double on a pick-and-roll, then found a wide-open Love in the right corner after getting around a triple-team. The 3 would have cut the Warriors’ lead to five; instead, it was a miss that led to one of Curry’s nine casual, record-breaking 3-pointers of the game. Golden State went up by 11 after that sequence, the first double-digit lead of the game. The Cavs wouldn’t get closer than five points the rest of the way. Every Cleveland run was seemingly stymied by a timely six-point swing from Golden State.

We witnessed classic performances from both Curry and LeBron in Game 2, but there couldn’t be a wider gulf in terms of how we receive them. When Curry is fully himself, hitting 3s from impossible angles on the move, relishing in the crowd’s ecstasy, the Warriors ride an unstoppable wave. When LeBron unlocks his inner Magic Johnson, the aesthetic wonder of his physical talent almost instantly corrodes because, more likely than not, the resulting action is out of James’s control, which is rarely good news.

In a career where greatness seemed preordained, but never quite arrived on time, we’ve had plenty of Waiting for LeBron moments over the past 15 seasons. Waiting for him to take over, waiting for him to assume the individual mastery that the Jordan archetype of superstar demands on the big stage. In these playoffs, James has consistently been in the Jordan imperative, tallying more 40-point performances in 2017-18 (eight) than his two best seasons prior combined (seven). But as easy as LeBron made it look, his 51-point night in Game 1 was a historical outlier, and a performance that knocked the wind out of him.

Luckily, the ball moves faster than the body. LeBron might not be able to truck opponents down every single possession, but he can always rend seams in a defense with a devastating pass. His Game 2 performance was a bit of self-preservation, yet didn’t lack for any greatness on its own merit. The 13 assists LeBron had on the night were vintage, a reminder that the King might just be the greatest passer of the past two generations. Of the many highlights, James’s midair, no-look, backward shovel pass around David West to Jeff Green on the right wing might’ve been his best work of the night. It was a pass that outlined LeBron’s singular vision, dexterity, focus, and placement; the ball landed directly in Green’s shooting pocket, which allowed him to immediately make the extra pass to Smith in order to take advantage of an overeager Jordan Bell:

And then: a Greek tragedy, abridged. Smith misses the shot. Larry Nance Jr. fights for the offensive rebound and gets fouled on the putback attempt. Nance misses both free throws. A moment of brilliance with zero to show for it. In past series of this unending Cavs-Warriors saga, Cleveland found success by securing second-chance opportunities; offensive rebounding was often seen as a key. The Cavs dominated the offensive glass on Sunday, but couldn’t finish the possessions they’d extended. That frustration, and all the what-ifs left unaccounted for, will linger into Game 3. There was no convenient scapegoat for Game 2; it was a collective letdown punctuated by the greatest individual 3-point-shooting performance in NBA Finals history. It happens. The Cavs, having been in similar situations for the past four years, know this better than anyone.

Playoff series aren’t isolated; they are palimpsests recording every decision made on every possession prior to the one in play. Each new layer to the series is informed by the layers beneath it. Thus, watching this Cleveland team becomes a granular experience. Every decision made by someone not named LeBron James feels, in a way, almost unbearingly pivotal. The misses add up, the frustrations mount, the pressure to make it up next time down becomes suffocating. Every possession that leaves James’s immediate control becomes a trust fall, and he’s been dropped enough times over the past 102 games to impress a LeBron-shaped grave. What a fitting way to mark what could be his closing moments as a Cleveland Cavalier.