By Mark Bacon
The Golden State Warriors are good. Even better than we thought they’d be when they signed Kevin Durant last summer — that any adjustment(s) the Cleveland Cavaliers might make in these NBA Finals are probably just a shot in the dark. That might be being generous.
Second, this is not, in any way, a suggestion that LeBron James isn’t doing enough, or that he lacks the so-often lazily referenced “killer instinct” of a Michael Jordan, or that he’s somehow shrinking from the moment, or that he’s not the best player in the world, which he is, unequivocally, despite what Paul Pierce might think. LeBron, once again, has been splendid in these NBA Finals, which his Cavs trail 2-0 heading back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday. He’s averaging a triple-double for crying out loud.
OK, so now that we’ve gotten these disclaimers out of the way so we can have a civil conversation, here’s the deal: LeBron James needs to shoot and score more if the Cavs have any chance of getting a win in Game 3 and getting back into this series. I’ve been beating this drum since the beginning of last year’s Finals, and I’m going to continue beating it as long as these two teams are playing each other as presently constructed. LeBron can play his preferred way, spreading the wealth and putting up balanced and efficient stat lines, against any other team in the league.
But not against the Warriors.
Dating back three years, the Cavs have beaten the Warriors six times in Finals games. Twice in 2015, and four times last year. In five of those six wins, LeBron scored over 30 points, with the only exception being Game 7 last year, when he scored 27. That game, by the way, was an anomaly. The Warriors only scored 89 points. That is not, under any circumstances, going to happen to this team with Durant on board. So you can forget that game.
So throwing that game out, the rule against the Warriors in the Finals, for three years now, has been very simple: LeBron doesn’t score at least 30, the Cavs don’t win. End of story.
Could that change in Game 3? I suppose anything could happen. Kyrie could get hot. Love could get hot. Even better, they could both get hot together. Tristan Thompson could turn back into the matchup advantage he was on the boards last year. Role players Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith could play better at home. Frankly, at least a few of those things need to happen before we even start talking about LeBron’s scoring.
But at this point, there doesn’t seem like much the Cavs can realistically count on in the way of these ancillary parts. The one thing we know they can count on is LeBron scoring big, really big, if he sets his mind to it. For three years now, there has been absolutely no evidence that the Warriors can keep him down in a Finals game if he come out intent on scoring from the jump. Zero. Last year he waited until his back was against the wall before he put his foot down. This year he has been more aggressive to score than he was in the early part of last year’s Finals, but it’s still not enough.
Game 1: 20 shots in 40 minutes.
Game 2: 18 shots in 39 minutes.
Not going to cut it.
In this series, LeBron’s efficiency is a trap. The Cavs would be better off with him shooting 30 times at a less efficient clip than the 12-for-18 line he put up Sunday night in Game 2. Kevin Durant has gotten a lot of attention for his one-on-one defense vs. LeBron, and Andre Iguodala has been good in stretches, too. But nobody can guard LeBron if he doesn’t allow it. This is the trust rule in the NBA. It was true in Game 2 when he went to the rim like a freight train for stretches. It’s asking a lot. The guy has to be absolutely zapped having to attack like that on one end and guard Durant on the other. But he needs to play, and score that way for the entire game.
For some reason, there is this belief out there that if LeBron is shooting threes, he’s settling. To a degree, it’s true. If he gets into a place where he’s just jacking them up and not making the defense guard him, not getting teams in foul trouble, not establishing a rhythm on his terms, that’s not good. That plays right into the defense’s hands. But in certain matchups — namely, against the Warriors — hitting threes isn’t the icing on the cake that it usually is for LeBron. It’s a necessity.
The thing is, he can shoot 3-pointers. He’s over 41 percent for the playoffs this year.
LeBron is the best player in the world. When he decides to be, he’s the best scorer in the world. He has proven it time and again. To beat the Warriors, the Cavs need the LeBron that put 48, 9 and 7 against the Pistons in 2007, including Cleveland’s last 25 points of the game. That still might not be enough against this Warriors team if they’re clicking on all cylinders, but it’s a chance.
LeBron taking 18 shots in 40 minutes is no chance at all.