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Pressure mounts as LeBron faces critical elimination game

Sporting News Sporting News 13/06/2016
LeBron James © Getty Images LeBron James

Based on his salty reaction to being called a naughty word by Draymond Green, we can safely assume LeBron James, widely celebrated as the world's greatest athlete, wouldn't survive in the NFL trenches or been the choice of Branch Rickey to cross the baseball color line.

"I'm surprised some guys take it so personal," said Klay Thompson. "It's a man's league. I guess his feelings got hurt."

He'd rather be addressed as king, his long-ago self-appointed nickname, but what will folks make of LeBron if he goes out quickly in this series and another championship L is tattooed to his crown?

There is much at stake Monday, with his team on the brink, and with the unenviable job of beating the Warriors inside what will surely be a frothing-at-the-mouth Oracle Arena, even with the odds softening in his favor. The one-game suspension of Green for playoff flagrancy, capped by his tap to LeBron's jewels, changes the tenor of Game 5. Suddenly, the Warriors must shuffle the deck to compensate for their missing All-Star glue guy. Suddenly, the Cavaliers have one less defensive pest to deal with against a team that's creating matchup hell for them.

Suddenly, LeBron has a chance to send the NBA Finals back to Cleveland.

A weird series featuring a pair of blowouts, a concussion protocol, the benching of a three-time All-Star and finally a key suspension took another dramatic twist on the eve of Game 5. Both teams were in a reactionary mood with Green taking a seat after, once again, going after someone's groin, and theories were thrown about by the public. Was the punishment truly necessary? (Green wasn't suspended for the LeBron punch; he was suspended for an accumulation of antics in this post-season.) Was this done to stretch the series? (The NBA doesn't profit any more from TV with a sweep or a seven-game series; the TV money is locked in regardless.) And what about LeBron's role in this? (He received a technical for stepping over Green, which was about right.)

LeBron wore a defiant black T-shirt depicting The Undertaker, a WWE wrestler. What he didn't wear was the sinister smirk of someone who got away with something, but you could excuse him if he did. The Warriors were incensed that LeBron instigated Green's retaliation with a push and then a rude step-over of Green's body, and that he knew Green was one strike away from punishment (LeBron denied this), but whatever. The Cavaliers needed a way to reduce the impact of Green in this series — he's in the running for Finals MVP — and therefore mission accomplished, thanks to Green's temper. Their goal now is to prevent the Warriors from celebrating and, an even more depressing sight, watching Green sprint into the building (he's banned during the game) before the confetti hits the floor and help hoist the trophy.

"We know how dangerous they are no matter who's in the lineup," said LeBron, mindful of how the Warriors used bench play to issue a whipping in one game this series. "Those guys will still complement each other."

There's also a potentially bigger cost. LeBron's championship record would fall to a Chamberlain-like 2-5, the city of Cleveland would receive another knife-twist to the gut, and the biological clock to LeBron's time as an elite athlete would take another tick.

He has reached the championship round six straight times, an amazing streak, and there's a tendency to think this is his birthright. After all, LeBron remains at or near the top of his game, few would argue he's the best all-around player in basketball, and he's an indestructible force that never gets seriously injured. Besides, he's playing in the East, where there's no frightening or up-and-coming threat in sight.

Often, though, that's when things can go haywire and veer off course. Maybe this is a conversation better suited for this summer or another day, but this series is showing how the Cavs need help beyond LeBron, and there's no guarantee they'll get it.

They were hit by a splash of harsh reality when Kevin Love was deemed enough of a bad fit that he was benched for Game 4. Imagine, an important player, top three in the rotation, turning mostly obsolete in the championship round. That's like the Big Three Heat demoting Chris Bosh. Maybe Love would be on the floor and effective had Oklahoma City advanced instead of the Warriors, but it just shows how fragile the Cavs are, especially when it comes to teams that favor smaller and quicker lineups.

As for LeBron, he's carrying 13 years of tread. He has played 17 more playoff games than Michael Jordan, six more than Magic Johnson and by this time next year could pass Kobe Bryant. That's a lot for someone who turns 32 in December. He takes incredible care of his body and his lifestyle isn't poisonous. Assuming he doesn't take an unfortunate spill on the floor, he'll be in the running for MVP and a lock as an All-Star next season and maybe the near future.

That said, LeBron hasn't exactly steamrolled through the Warriors in this series, nothing like last summer. There's yet to be a 35-point explosion, or massive triple double, or punishing fourth quarter where he takes over the game. He has looked amazingly mortal during crucial times, missing jumpers from deep and harassed mainly by Andre Iguodala into turnovers and making mental mistakes. If this continues in Game 5 without Green on the floor, and the Cavs lose, that will haunt LeBron into the summer. For the second straight year, he'd have to scrub Iguodala's DNA off his jersey.

Any anger from being called names by Green was gone Sunday. LeBron even refrained from giving a verbal slap to Thompson for being called hypersensitive. He laughed, and laughed some more, then paused.

"It's so hard to take the high road," he said. "I've been doing it for 13 years but I'm gonna take it again."

Then he went from high road to low-key approach to his season being on the line and being down 3-1 to the defending champs.

"It's not hard," he said. "You go out, you give all that you can for your team and your teammates, and you live with the results. I put a lot of work into this year. I know what our team is capable of doing. You go out and do your job."

The Warriors have played without Green once this season and lost to the Nuggets. They'll either start Iguodala or maybe Mo Speights, depending on what lineup Steve Kerr wants, and also bring a sellout crowd thirsty to see a championship being celebrated in Oakland; the two other Warriors titles were sealed in Washington and Cleveland. Even with the Warriors shorthanded, it's a massive task for LeBorn to flip this series in his favor. And if he doesn't, it becomes reasonable to wonder if he'll ever win one for Cleveland.

"I've been blessed to be a part of seven Finals," he said, "and hopefully I'll be blessed to play in many more even after this year, win, lose or draw."

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. 

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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