OAKLAND, Calif. — George Hill, who missed a potential winning free throw at the end of regulation in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, called the Cavaliers’ overtime loss to the Warriors the worst of his life. So imagine how LeBron James felt after scoring 51 points. He became the sixth player to score at least 50 in the Finals and the first of those six to lose.
“It’s one of the toughest losses I’ve had in my career as well, because of everything that went on in the game and the way we played,” James said before practice Saturday at Oracle Arena. “It was a tough 24 hours not only for G-Hill and for myself but for our whole ballclub because we put ourselves in great position to be successful. You give yourself a day. If you need to take two days, OK. But you should feel excited about the opportunity to be better and to be great and move forward.”
The question: How much better does James have to be to beat the Warriors’ All-Star cast in Game 2 on Sunday at Oracle Arena? In addition to his scoring, he had eight rebounds and eight assists and made 19 of 32 shots in a superhuman performance.
But throughout these playoffs, James has made that routine. In the games following the Cavs’ previous six playoff losses, he averaged 39.7 points, winning five of those six bounce-back games.
When that was pointed out to Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, he laughed and said: “So that means he has to score 60 now, right? I mean, after a loss, it’s tough, but I think he always comes out and leads by example and sets the tone early offensively. We need him to do that, especially on this floor with their crowd and the way they play. We need him to set the tone early in all the games.”
James has been utterly brilliant throughout the playoffs, averaging 34.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists to drag the Cavs, who were the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, to the Finals. But his Game 1 effort was otherworldly, especially when you consider that he was poked in the eye by Draymond Green early in the game and suffered from blurred vision the rest of the way.
Asked if he basically scored 51 with only one good eye, James laughed and said, “No, I had some points before [it got poked] already.”
Fortunately, James had time to recover. Peering from under the brim of a baseball hat pulled low, James said of his injured eye: “It doesn’t look better, but the docs told me it’s better. It looks worse than it did during the game, but it feels better. I’m taking my medication, my eye drops and my antibiotic to help me with recovery as fast as possible. But it’s an eye. It’s going to recover as fast as it can on its own. There is nothing you can do. But it’s better today than it was in Game 1.”
Despite pulling out the Game 1 win in overtime, Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt James gave his defenders a black eye. Kerr explained the problem was adjusting to James’ style after playing seven games in the Western Conference finals against James Harden and the Rockets, who mainly fire away from three-point range.
James is the premier driver in the NBA, and he was able to create mismatches by coming off screens while the Warriors switched a different defender on to him. He repeatedly forced 6-3 Stephen Curry to cover him and battle to keep him away from the rim.
“I think we have to continue to explore different ways to defend him, putting different bodies on him,” Kerr said. “I thought he was spectacular, but I didn’t think we made it that difficult for him. That’s always the challenge when you play a great player. There is this balance between accepting his numbers but making it difficult. I never thought we got him out of his comfort zone. We did not do a good job on LeBron no matter who was on him . . . It wasn’t an individual issue. It’s a teamwide focus and aggression that needs to change.”
The absence of Andre Iguodala, who is nursing a left leg bone bruise and is doubtful for Game 2, hurts the Warriors because he’s the most effective matchup against James. But the Cavs’ superstar understands the Warriors likely will take a more physical approach to defending him in Game 2.
At the same time, James knows he’s on a roll and never has been better because his outside shooting is so much improved from his younger days. As he put it: “There were parts of my game that you could disrespect early in my career. You can’t do that now.”