OAKLAND — “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.”
That was LeBron James after his Cavaliers fell in Game 5 of the NBA Finals Sunday night. It’s a statement filled with swagger said in a matter-of-fact tone.
And he’s right.
He proved that Sunday night.
LeBron scored 40 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 11 assists Sunday night. He scored or assisted on all but six of Cleveland’s 32 baskets. When Cavaliers coach David Blatt decided to match the Warriors’ small lineup LeBron played a lot of strong defense in the paint, trying to protect the rim.
That small lineup was part of an effort to find other offense, but the Warriors shut that down. In the end, the Cavaliers had to go back to LeBron isolations. That was the only thing that worked.
As he has done virtually all playoffs, he’s carried a banged up, flawed roster farther than anyone else in the game could have. He carried them to the point that Game 5 was a one-point game with just more than five minutes remaining.
“LeBron has been tremendous is even an understatement for how he’s played in the series,” Cavaliers’ coach David Blatt said. “And he had another one of those days today. Under the current set of circumstances, that’s what we’ve got to get, and he’s bringing it. You don’t see that every day, what he’s doing. You’ve got to take your hat off to him too.”
LeBron’s critics — a vocal and misguided group who flock to Twitter — will point out that he wasn’t efficient. LeBron was 6-of-8 shooting at the rim but 6-of-18 from outside the restricted area out to the three-point line. (He was 3-of-8 from three.)
But LeBron finished the night with a solid true shooting percentage of 52.7 percent — actually, solid is an understatement considering his 41 percent usage rate.
The Warriors who have to defend LeBron get it. All they hope to do is wear him down.
“You’re not going to shut him down,” Draymond Green said. “But if you continue to make him work hard for each and every bucket that he gets, it takes a toll on his body. He does a lot for this ballclub, on top of it he’s not a guy who takes the defensive end of the court off. He’s constantly working, constantly working. You just want to make him take tough shots and make him work for those baskets that he gets.
“If he gets 40, he gets 40. Like I said, that’s why he’s LeBron James. You can go throw a triple-team at him, and he’ll probably still get 40, but as long as you make him work for those 40, then you’ve got to be satisfied with what you do.
“He took 34 shots and got 40. I mean, 15 for 34 is still a great percentage, but that’s kind of what it’s been this entire series. He’s going to be aggressive and score. Especially with some of the guys they have out, and we understand that. If he’s hitting shots, he’s hitting shots. You’ve got to live with it and continue to make him take tough ones.”
LeBron was hitting shots, from at the rim to ridiculous 34-foot threes. He was clearly gassed again at the end of the game and it started to show. So how does he cope with that kind of effort that still leads to a loss.
“Well, you cope with it by understanding it’s just one game and looking at the opportunity we have on Tuesday to force a Game 7,” LeBron said. “Obviously, for myself, I want to do whatever it takes to help our team win, and I haven’t been able to do that the last two. So hopefully I can do a better job coming in on Tuesday. We all as a unit can do a better job, and we’ll be fine.”
It doesn’t look like they will be fine. It looks like the Warriors — the deeper, better team — has figured the series out. They know how to win it now.
But that’s not going to diminish LeBron’s swagger.
With his performance Sunday, LeBron joined Jerry West as the only players to have a 40+ point triple double in the NBA Finals. That would be the same West who was the last guy to win the Finals MVP on a losing team.
Something that could happen for LeBron. And he’ll likely feel about it the same way West does — he doesn’t like to talk about it because all West remembers is the loss.
That didn’t impact his swagger either. LeBron and West have that in common, too.