LeBron James hurts everywhere, the King of Pain.
One win from taking the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals, and one step closer to a title he covets more than any other, James leaned against a padded wall on Monday and hardly resembled basketball’s most undeniable force.
”I’m feeling all right,” he said, forcing a smile that showed he wasn’t being entirely truthful. ”I’ve been better, but I’ve been worse. I think I’ve been worse.”
James moved slowly and not with his usual grace one day after his brilliant performance in Game 3 lifted Cleveland to a 114-111 win over the Atlanta Hawks in overtime, moving the Cavs within a victory of their first Finals appearance since 2007.
James wore a sleeve on his right calf, which cramped so severely he asked to be taken out Sunday night before re-considering. Instead, he pushed through the pain and delivered 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists – all after an 0-for-10 shooting start – to help the Cavs take a 3-0 series lead.
He’s battered, not beaten. James isn’t going to let anything stop him. Not now. Not this close to his fifth straight Finals or a championship.
”When you want to win, you’ve got to sacrifice your body feeling good,” he said. ”That’s just what it’s about.”
With a win on Tuesday night, the Cavs can clinch the Eastern Conference title and get some rest before a Finals matchup presumably against Golden State, which leads Houston 3-0 heading into Monday’s Game 4. James has been down this path before, but never one so bumpy.
Cleveland’s season has been strewn with obstacles: extreme expectations, chemistry issues, trades and injuries, including ones in the postseason to forward Kevin Love and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who has missed the past two games with an injured left knee. James has never been on a team that’s had to surmount as much.
Before the season began, James predicted this – molding a new team into a title contender – would be the greatest challenge of his career.
”I felt it would be, and it is,” he said.
The Cavs need one more win over the rising Hawks, who showed resiliency in Game 3 by overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth when they appeared done. One play here, one there and Atlanta wouldn’t be in a 3-0 hole that no team in league history has been able to climb from.