LeBron James is ready to carry the injury-hit Cleveland Cavaliers to a title, having shown his gritty teammates and the Golden State Warriors that the NBA Finals are far from over.
His masterpiece game for the ages of 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists powered the Cavaliers to a 95-93 over-time road victory on Sunday, leveling the best-of seven series at 1-1 entering Game 3 in Cleveland.
“It’s what needs to be done to help our team win, but if that’s what the case has to be to help us win, then I don’t have a choice,” James said.
Asked if he could handle the load, James said: “Well, of course. I’m built for it. It’s a maximum of five games left in the NBA season. So I’m ready for whatever.”
The Cavaliers lost forward Kevin Love with a separated shoulder in the first round of the playoffs and star guard Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the Finals with a fractured left kneecap, leaving unheralded role players to compete with defensive hustle, rebounding and near-superhuman efforts from James.
And they are opposing this season’s winningest and best-scoring NBA team, a deep Warriors lineup led by reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry, a three-point sharpshooter.
“I’m not a high-volume shooter. I’ve never been in my career, but things have changed on our team where the shots that Kevin and Kyrie would have has now been placed on myself and the rest of the guys as well,” James said
“All we can do is go out and play hard. We’re undermanned. I don’t know any other team in this league that would be able to do that, to be without two All-Stars on their team and compete the way we compete and be a force. So the guys are taking that very personal,” he said.
It was Australian Matthew Dellavedova filling in for Irving and shutting down Curry defensively. It was 17 points and 11 rebounds from Russian big man Timofey Mozgov, 14 rebounds from Tristan Thompson and timely shooting by J.R. Smith and James Jones — often aided by spectacular passes from James.
“It’s the grit squad that we have,” James said. “It’s not cute at all. If you’re looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, then that’s not us right now. Everything is tough. We’re going to come in with an aggressive mindset defensively and offensively.”
Cleveland shot only 32.6 percent in Game 2, but won by outrebounding the Warriors 55-45, forcing 18 turnovers and taking control of the game’s tempo, often allowing the shot clock to expire while working for the right shot.
“For us to win a Finals game shooting 32 percent from the field, it’s just a testament of how gritty we can be,” James said. “It has to be that for the rest of the series, no matter how many games it takes.”
The win bolstered the Cavs’ confidence they can win the title without two of the stars who helped them reach the Finals. Cleveland can do so with three wins at home, where the team has won 26 of its past 28 starts.
“We have the home-court advantage now and we have to take advantage of it,” Smith said. “In spite of it all, without Kevin and Kyrie, we can still get it done.”
While James evoked memories of Michael Jordan in his heyday, even Jordan never faced such a rival without key helpers.
James returned to his hometown Cavs from Miami in July last year after four consecutive Finals trips, determined to bring Cleveland its first US sports champion since the 1964 NFL Browns. James is only three wins shy on his first try, but might need more astonishing efforts to succeed.
“You never put limits on a guy like that,” Thompson said. “He has been exceeding expectations since he was 16. When you say he can’t do more, he always proves you wrong.”
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