CLEVELAND — LeBron James hasn’t given up hope, but he’s also a realist.
He knows the Cavaliers are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the best-of-seven NBA Finals heading into Game 4 tonight at Quicken Loans Arena.
An astute student of the game, he also knows teams that fall behind 3-0 are 0-131 lifetime when it comes to winning that series.
Heck, he might even know that the last time the Warriors lost four games in a row was March 2013, but he also knows there’s still at least one game to be played.
“I still feel good, even with turning my ankle (Wednesday) or getting a (Draymond Green) finger jammed into my eye (in Game 1) and taking the bumps and bruises and grinds throughout the playoff series,” James said Thursday in an expansive podium interview at The Q. “I still feel like I’m excited to put on the uniform (tonight).”
If the Cavs lose, it could be the last time the four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion dons a Cleveland jersey. He’s expected to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent in July — but that’s one of the few topics that wasn’t discussed Thursday.
James did say he knew the Cavs were never talented enough to win a title in his first seven-year stint in Cleveland, be it when they were swept by San Antonio in the 2007 Finals, lost in six games to Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals after winning a league-best 66 games in the regular season or eliminated by Boston in six games in the 2010 conference semifinals after winning 61 regular-season games.
After the latter, James took his talents to South Beach and joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, where the Heat reached four straight Finals and won two titles.
Asked if the current Cavs were good enough to win a championship, James said, “We’ve had an opportunity to win two of these games in this three-game series so far, and we haven’t come up with it. Obviously, from a talent perspective, if you’re looking at Golden State from their top five best players to our top five players, you would say they’re stacked better than us. Let’s just speak the truth.
“You’ve got two guys (Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant) with MVPs on their team. And then you’ve got a guy in Klay (Thompson) who could easily carry a team. ... And then you have Draymond, who is arguably one of the best defenders and minds we have in our game.
“The room for error vs. a team like this,” he added, “is slim to none.”
After winning a league-record 73 games in 2015-16 but blowing a 3-1 lead and losing to the Cavs in the Finals, the Warriors went out and added Durant, who had 43 points Wednesday in Golden State’s 110-102 victory.
Ever since then, the rest of the league has been playing catch-up.
“Now everyone is trying to figure that out,” James said. “How do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete for a championship?”
Without mentioning former teammate Kyrie Irving by name, James said winning a title is not of the utmost importance to every player in the league.
“Sad to say, but every player doesn’t want to compete for a championship and be in a position where every possession is pressure,” he said.
James is in the Finals for the eighth straight year and ninth overall, but only one of those appearances came in his first stint in Cleveland. Lifetime, he is 3-5 in the Finals, with one championship with the Cavs.
Michael Jordan, the person James is most often compared to when it comes to the debate over the greatest player of all time, went 6-0 in the Finals.
“I felt like my first stint here, I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete vs. the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” said James, who then talked at length about how guys like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo were not only great players, but had great basketball minds.
“Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down (the floor),” he said. “It was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than basketball.’ Not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well. I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn’t succeed getting past a Boston, getting past the San Antonios of the league, whatever the case may be.”
That, James said, was how and why the idea of playing with former Olympic teammates Wade and Bosh was formed.
“I knew how they thought the game, more than just playing the game,” he said. “Obviously, we all knew their talent, but I knew their minds as well, so I linked up with them.”
James also praised the basketball IQs of Heat teammates Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem, saying that’s what he wanted to build in Cleveland when he returned in the summer of 2014.
“I knew Kyrie, having the talent, I wanted to try to build his mind up, to fast track his mind, because I felt like in order to win, you’ve got to have talent, but you’ve got to be very cerebral, too,” he said. “Listen, we’re all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop, but who can think throughout the course of the game?
“People who really don’t know the game don’t really know what I’m talking about,” he added. “They just think that you go out and, ‘Oh, LeBron, you’re bigger and faster and stronger than everybody. You should drive every single time and you should dunk every single time and you should never get tired.’ Like it’s a video game and you went to the options and you turned down ‘fatigue’ all the way to zero and ‘injuries’ all the way down to zero.”
Now, James said, the Cavs’ title pursuit is complicated by the Warriors being “built from a different cloth.”
“The best thing about their team is that if one of their stars goes down, they have two or three other stars that are still able to hold the ship until everybody gets back,” James said.
There are no guarantees this series would have unfolded any differently, but James admitted to wondering what it might be like if the Cavs hadn’t dealt his good friend Wade, also a three-time champion, at the trade deadline.
“He’s a guy that’s kind of built for the postseason at this point in his career, who lives for the moment,” the small forward said. “So definitely, definitely thought about that. It seems so long ago that he was even a part of this ballclub, but definitely think about it from time to time.”
As for James’ oft-issued comments about the Warriors’ greatness, they could be interpreted by some as a way to excuse a Finals series record that is on the verge of falling to 3-6, but the Akron native vows to continue pursuing titles for as long as he plays the game.
“I love to compete,” James said. “At the end of the day, no matter win, lose or draw, being part of the biggest stage in our sport is something that I’ve always loved and never taken for granted.
“My love of the game continues to get bigger and bigger and greater and greater, and hopefully my game and my health continue to be at a level it is today for some years to come.”
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