Every crucial moment in Cleveland sports is potentially a capitalized shorthand reference to failure — The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, et. al — and so it wasn’t hard to wonder, when LeBron James went careening into a camera after a hard foul in Game 4, whether The Cut might become the next in this 50-year run of hard luck and futility. There was the seemingly indestructible force holding the Cavaliers together, leaking blood from his head, and if that wasn’t a metaphor for everything both the city and its teams have faced up against for decades, then nothing is.
It would be wildly premature, of course, to declare these NBA Finals over, given the way the series already defied conventional wisdom time and again. But after the 103-82 loss to the Warriors — a defeat that evened the series 2-2 heading into Game 5 on Sunday at Oracle Arena — the Cavaliers suddenly look every bit like the reeling and gassed and heavily bandaged team that entered these Finals as a colossal underdog. For the first three games, they were held together by several epic James performances, the emergence of budding folk hero Matthew Dellavedova, and the futility of a Warriors team that seemed frozen in the spotlight.
But now the Cavaliers will be forced to rediscover a new reservoir of energy, and perhaps a new strategy. Even coach David Blatt admits that his team is tired, that the run of three games in five days had broken down their legs and their bodies to the point that it was difficult for them to keep up with a Warriors lineup that finally figured out a way to push the tempo. But what can this undermanned Cleveland team do? How many strategies do they have left?
“We don’t have many options as far as lineups we can go to, but we can make adjustments,” James said. “That’s what you do throughout a series. We’ll get to the film and make the necessary adjustments coming into Game 5. But as far as lineup changes, we don’t have many different lineup changes we can actually go to.”
The only real possibility of a lineup change would be to employ some of the veterans on the Cleveland bench, an option that is gaining traction in the Cleveland locker room according to an ESPN report. While it’s difficult to imagine that more minutes for past-their-prime players like Mike Miller and Shawn Marion might somehow rescue the Cavaliers from their own exhaustion, it might provide a small respite for the beaten-up James and Dellavedova (hospitalized for dehydration after Game 3), and for struggling perimeter threat J.R. Smith, who went 0-for-8 from 3-point range during Game 4.
“That’s the coach’s decision if he wants to go deeper in the bench,” James said.
Maybe Blatt will find a way to adjust to Golden State’s smaller lineup, to counter the obvious advantage in both quickness and personnel that the Warriors have. For three games, the Cavs did outplay the Warriors despite those disadvantages. But given that the Cavs were 4-of-27 from three-point range in Game 4, it may come down to something as simple as finding someone, anyone, who can consistently make shots from the outside, thereby opening up the floor for James.
“I think we were a little bit slower into our sets, and I think we didn’t always get [LeBron] the ball in great spots, and that made it a little bit more arduous for him to get into position to score the ball,” Blatt said. “I think also the fact that we didn’t make shots tonight from outside, that really had an impact on his ability to find seams and to score the ball. Because there is a dynamic to that. When you’re constantly, constantly on the defensive end, it’s just like in football with possession time. When your defense is on the field all the time, you know you’re in trouble.”
And there is little doubt that the Cavs are now facing trouble. Maybe the igominy of all those Cleveland moments gone by strikes them down; or maybe James finds a way to transcend his hometown’s history. And his attempts to downplay that history after Game 4 rang slightly hollow, given how attached his presence is to the city’s own self-worth.
“I understand how important this city is and what I mean to this city and what our team means to the city as far as even with other professional sports teams that we have in this city, but I don’t get caught up into it,” James said. “I just go out and play my game.”
He can’t help but get caught up in it at this point, though. Everything he does is informed by those decades of failure. At this point, only LeBron, bloody and reeling, can render that failure into a thing of the past.