OAKLAND, Calif. — In a mostly silent locker room save for the sound of running showers, LeBron James nonchalantly put on his suit, his watch, his sunglasses and his headphones, then stood and waited for a team official to escort him to the Oracle Arena interview room. As he did, he took a deep breath and blew into his hands, as if getting ready to take the court.
Presumably he knew that a couple hundred reporters were waiting to grill him about the Cavs’ humiliating 110-77 loss to the Warriors in Sunday night’s Game 2 of the NBA Finals. As the face of his franchise, he’d be expected to provide answers that didn’t necessarily exist.
And of course, the sports cable shouting shows would be ready to crucify him if he dared slip up and criticize his coach or his team.
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If James was frustrated, he never showed it, but nor did he have any ready explanations for why his team flailed so haplessly in the first two games here. And he did not hesitate to point the finger at himself.
"I’ve got to be better," he said, again and again.
It’s rare to see an NBA superstar this humbled. Not since his first of seven trips to the Finals in 2007 has he faced a 2-0 deficit. His 19 points on Sunday marked the first time he failed to crack 20 in his past 26 playoff games. His seven turnovers were his most in a game since December.
But of course it’s not just that he and the Cavs lost both games; it’s that they looked so listless in losing by a combined 48 points. They’ve been disjointed on offense, and at times completely lost on defense.
"We didn’t play hard," forward Tristan Thomspon said of Game 2. "They won the 50-50 balls. They wanted it more than us, and it shows in the outcome."
While it’s true the 73-win-Warriors have made a lot of teams look bad this season, usually that’s because Steph Curry was lighting them up from outside. In this case, Curry, plagued by foul trouble much of Sunday, has been far from dominant, yet Cleveland has not remotely been able to take advantage. In Game 1, Curry’s backup, Shaun Livingston, lit up the Cavs. In Game 2, Draymond Green (28 points) did by far the most damage, but everyone from Andre Iguodala to Leandro Barbosa left Cleveland in his wake at some point.
Come the fourth quarter, which began with the Warriors already up 20, James got an unwanted view of the carnage from his seat on the bench, which he never left, as Golden State stomped out any chance of Cleveland at least making the final margin respectable.
"It’s hard for me to kind of pinpoint what’s not working and what could work right now," he said. "Obviously not much is working."
Game 3 in Cleveland is not until Wednesday, which will give the sport’s punditry 72 hours to skewer the King. A player who is forever compared with Michael Jordan and his six rings is two losses away from falling to 2-5 in the Finals. Never mind the remarkable fact he’s been to six straight, with two different teams. We expect nothing short of spectacular, every night, from a player of James’ caliber.
A year ago against the Warriors, he was just that, near-singlehandedly willing a Cavs team missing injured stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to a sixth game. He averaged 35.8 points for an overmatched team.
A year later, Cleveland is at full strength (or at it least it was until Love left Sunday night’s game in the third quarter with concussion-like symptoms), yet James has been nowhere near as effective and his team even worse. Irving and Love are defensive liabilities. J.R. Smith has gone completely AWOL. At times, aging role player Richard Jefferson was the Cavs’ second-best player on the floor.
Give due credit to the Warriors, themselves having morphed from championship-caliber to potentially all-time great. But fairly or not, the expectation when this series returns to Cleveland will be that James rediscover his 2015 form and the Cavs win Game 3. He knows that. He has 72 hours to figure out how to elevate himself and his seemingly mismatched teammates.
"I’m one of the guys who kind of always wants to shoulder the blame and take the blame when we don’t play as well as we should," said James. "It’s just who I am. And I’ve got to be better."
Golden State entered the series as the favorite, and certainly no one should have been all that surprised to see them win the first two at home. A common prediction last week was Warriors in 5.
But some now consider that an optimistic fate for the Cavs. Needless to say, it will be a significant ding to James’ reputation if his team gets swept.
"The next couple days — I won’t be reflecting," said James. "I’ll figure out ways I can be better, starting as soon as I leave this podium. Probably go back to the room and watch the game, re-watch for ways I could have been better."
It sounded like a miserable capper to an already dismal evening.
Here’s guessing James and the Cavs will find a way to win at least one game in Cleveland. Home court crowds have a way of reenergizing a struggling team. But the prospect of adding a third ring this season seems increasingly unlikely for James. Only three times in 31 instances has a team that fell behind 2-0 in the Finals come back to win the trophy.
Right now, winning four of the next five games could not seem like a more distant goal. The immediate priority for Cleveland is to stop getting embarrassed.
James can’t make that happen by himself, but he’ll still be held responsible if he doesn’t.