One of the great moments of LeBron James’ career happened in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, when he drilled a high-arching 3-pointer that fell through the net after the horn sounded and gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a stunning one-point home victory over the Orlando Magic.
In the mass hysteria that followed — there’s always a certain buzz that envelopes an arena when James does something special, even if it’s on the road — it was easy to miss the reality. Even though they were the lower seed and the underdog, Orlando left Cleveland with the series tied 1-1 and felt pretty good about its chances to win.
The Magic did finish off the Cavs in six games. James had historically one of the greatest series for a player on a losing team, averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists. (He did it despite playing with a benign tumor in his jaw, which was removed in a four-hour surgery three days after the series ended.)
That Cavs team won a franchise-record 66 games and was the No. 1 overall seed. They were the No. 2-ranked defense, had four players average 12 or more points and six rotation players who shot 38 percent or better on 3-pointers. It was a great team. Not a championship team but a great team nonetheless. And they reached a point when they just were outclassed.
That memory is relevant now as the Cavs find themselves locked in a 1-1 battle with the Indiana Pacers as their playoffs series heads to Indianapolis. Looking at the situation frankly and evaluating the uneven play of his teammates, James may be facing the most daunting first-round series of his career.
The supporting cast needs to rally or face a dubious distinction of being the weakest in James’ 13 career playoff runs. It’s not a conclusion the Cavs want James to come to as he approaches another free agency, especially considering this roster is costing $190 million, including luxury tax.
Or as Cavs coach Ty Lue said after Game 2: “I need to see more out of a lot of guys.”
The Cavs have the oldest and most expensive roster in the playoffs yet James had the heavy lifting in the first two games. For example, he has already scored 70 points in the series, 46 more than the second-leading scorer Kevin Love, who has 24. The five leading scorers from the regular season after James — Love, Kyle Korver, Jordan Clarkson, Jeff Green and Rodney Hood — are a combined 22-of-68 shooting.
So far, James has scored or assisted on 62 percent of the team’s baskets. It’s early but that would be the highest such number of his playoff career, per ESPN Stats & Information research. His current high mark? Back in that aforementioned 2009 postseason, at 54 percent.
Calling to mind those playoff runs with the Cavs from 2006-10 isn’t exactly a compliment. At least back then, James knew the team could hang its hat on defense. Cleveland ranked No. 1 in playoff defense in 2007, ’08 and ’09.
Certainly, there were nights when James had limited help on offense back then. He famously scored 48 of the team’s 109 points, including the Cavs’ final 25, in a double-overtime victory in Game 5 of the conference finals against Detroit in 2007. In a Game 7 in the conference semifinals in Boston the following postseason, he scored 45 of the team’s 92 points in a brutal loss.
On that night, the Cavs were in the game until the waning seconds because the defense held Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo to 10-of-30 shooting, which was commonplace for the team back then. This season’s Cavs have allowed Indiana’s Darren Collison to shoot 61 percent in six games against them.
The Cavs ranked 29th in defensive efficiency during the regular season, the worst of any team in James’ career. They’ve improved in the first two games of the series, holding the Pacers to less than 100 points in both games, one of the Cavs’ few bright spots in the series. Nonetheless, James just can’t count on this team defensively the way he did a decade ago when he dragged Cleveland teams through series after series.
For all of these reasons, James’ mood was somewhat melancholy Wednesday night, in part because he’d learned of the passing of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s wife and in part because he has seen a lot more playoff basketball now than he had nine years ago. He knows not all 1-1 series are created equal.
“I just try to be productive no matter what lineup is out on the floor,” James said, generally shaking off discussions about changing rotations and changing strategies.
James has been here before and he’s acutely aware of the challenge that he’s got in front of him. He has spoken in the past of his team needing several “hero” games from him during a playoff series. Typically, though, that has been in conference finals or NBA Finals series when he’s been on the underdog.
Wednesday was the 20th time in James’ career that he has scored 40 or more points in a playoff game, the second-most all-time. His 46 points were also the most he has ever scored in a first-round game, perhaps because they were so badly needed, even if he’s not ready to publicly admit the situation he’s seeing, especially with Love now dealing with a sprained thumb he suffered late in Game 2.
It’s early for hero ball and James knows it.
“It means the series is tied 1-1 and it’s going to Indiana,” James deadpanned. “They’re a really, really good team, so it just sets up for Game 3, it’s just the next game.”