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This will be an unpopular, more than likely, disputed, statement but the most responsibility for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday afternoon lies mostly on the shoulders of the guy who recorded a triple-double.
True, James did score 24 points and add 10 rebounds and 12 assists in the 98-80 loss at Quicken Loans Arena.
However, he took only 17 shots, two less than he averaged while playing all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his career.
That won’t cut it. Not for this team. Not as it’s presently constructed.
James grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, wearing Jordan’s No. 23 in school and in the NBA, save for his four seasons spent in Miami (where he donned No. 6), and telling Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago,” in August 2016.
It’s time for James to channel his Inner Michael, as he did in carrying the Cavaliers past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals and into his first NBA Finals in 2007, as opposed to the style that he’s flashed and and for which he’s received much acclaim in playing more like Magic Johnson.
These Cavaliers, without Kyrie Irving, need LeBron to be in attack mode from the jump. That was on full display Sunday, when passive LeBron came out as he normally does, creating open looks for his teammates and firing pinpoint passes to them.
He simply cannot take two field-goal attempts in a quarter, especially the first quarter, as he did Sunday. He didn’t score until he made two free throws with 1:52 left in the opening quarter.
By that time, Cleveland was down, 25-10, and for all intents and purposes, despite the Cavs closing to within seven in the third quarter, the verdict was in as they trailed after one quarter, 33-14, with more turnovers (6) than made buckets (5).
That won’t cut it. These Cavaliers can’t win that way, especially when they are scatter-gunning away. Cleveland shot just 8-of-34 (23.5) from beyond the arc, despite an array of open looks, 38.5 percent from the field overall (30 of 78) and 60 percent from the free-throw line (12 of 20).
Kevin Love and J.R. Smith each went 3-of-6 from deep. The rest of the Cavaliers shot a combined 2-of-22. To save you hitting the “calculator” button on your phone, that translates to nine percent.
In years past, when LeBron played passively as he did in Game 1, everyone would wonder if he was attempting to “send a message to his teammates,” etc. Most times, these types of performances came in regular-season games. Rarely, if ever, have we seen it in the postseason.
Coming in his James’ playoff game with Irving not on the roster since he came home in the summer of 2014, and knowing the likes of Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson were playoff neophytes, watching LeBron sort of feel things out is puzzling.
Victor Oladipo (32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 1 block in 37 minutes) of the Pacers was The Man on this day, not James, and that can’t happen if this Cavaliers team expects to win this series, let alone to get to a fourth consecutive NBA Finals.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, while not referring to James specifically, said as much for his team after the 18-point loss.
“I just think you can’t ease into the playoffs,” Lue said. “I thought they came in and they attacked us, hit us first and we were never able to recover.
“You can’t ease into the game.”
Which brings us to Lue. Yes, Jeff Green played well, extremely well, at times, down the stretch of the regular season, prompting Lue to declare the veteran as a starter for the rest of the season.
And while he was effective defensively when Cleveland went on its 9-1 run to get to within seven points in the third quarter, he was terrible offensively. Green missed all seven shots he took, including three from beyond the arc, adding four rebounds and an assist in 27 minutes.
The fact James scored 24 points and the other four starters — Love (9 points, 17 rebounds), Rodney Hood (9), George Hill (7) and Green scored 25 points, combined — indicates Lue should consider putting Nance back in the starting lineup in place of Green. Nance contributed 10 points, five boards, an assist, two steals and a block in 30 minutes, making 5-of-7 shots.
Regardless, it’s not about Green, nor Nance nor even Lue. It’s about what it’s always about for these Cavaliers — James.
Asked whether the layoff before Game 2 will both him, James sloughed off such thoughts.
“I’ve always stayed even keeled with the postseason,” James said. “It’s just, I mean, I’m down 0-1 in the first round. 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.”
Sure, he will, but what about his teammates? This is, after all, a team sport.
James’ teammates need him to do what he did in the final three quarters, which was attack whenever possible and allow his teammates to fill supporting roles, not give up the rock and ask them to be leading men.
The leading man on this team wears No. 23, and as was the case with MJ at the height of his powers, is referred to as the best player on the planet.
That guy doesn’t ease into games, especially playoff games. He takes them over, from the start, and makes them his own.
As Kevin Harlan eloquently exclaimed metaphorically back in 2007, “With no regard for human life!”
That’s the LeBron James these Cavaliers must have in order to be successful.
With almost three full days for the opener to fester in his gut, expect to see that version of James come Wednesday night.