The mural still splashes across the building near the Cleveland Cavaliers’ arena, a reminder of the pomp and promise that accompanied LeBron James’ return to his home state.
It’s 10 stories tall and shows him tossing talc in the air before a game, a trademark of his all those years when he was young and hopeful as an entire city jumped on the back of his jersey.
When he came back here in 2014 as the game’s most complete player, he had two championships with Miami and the vision to finally end the sports famine in Ohio’s second-largest city.
Now he’s talking about do-or-die games in the NBA Finals. Not in a good way.
The Cavaliers lost the first two games to Golden State by a combined 48 points, and there’s nothing positive to say about them other than they finally host a game Wednesday.
Even that comes with a gold-and-blue asterisk. The Cavaliers lost by 34 to the Warriors here in January.
“It’s a do-or-die game for us. We can’t afford to go down 3-0 to any team, especially a team that’s 73-9 in the regular season and playing the type of basketball they’re playing,” James said Tuesday.
Indeed, an NBA team has never come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. Only three of 31 came back to win the Finals after being down 2-0.
These are problems for a Cleveland team that can’t get any consistency from Kyrie Irving (33% accuracy so far) and not enough from James, who has good averages — 21 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, three steals — but is shooting a mere 42%.
He also coughed up seven turnovers in a 33-point Game 2 loss, an uncharacteristic number that had him scrambling out of the arena Sunday into immediate replays of what unfolded in Oakland.
James noticed his poor footwork, especially in the third quarter as he was called for two traveling violations and air-balled a three-point shot. He also noticed the Warriors’ quick hands on defense.
In a quasi-light moment Tuesday, James was asked by a reporter if he had to be a “man possessed” to help turn around the series.
“I mean, what does that actually mean?” James said. “I mean, I think for me to go out and be who I am and play as true to the game and as hard as I can and try to lead this team, that’s who I am. Not anybody else.
“I’m not Michael [Jordan]. I’m not [Muhammad] Ali. I’m not nobody else that’s done so many great things for sport. I am who I am, and if I’m able to go out and put together a game like that, it wasn’t because I was possessed. It’s because I worked on my craft all season long and that’s the result of it.”
Curry’s lack of production is the most surprising part of Golden State’s dominance. He was undone by poor shooting in Game 1 (four for 15) and disrupted by foul trouble in Game 2 on the way to a meager 14.5-point average so far, well below the 30.1 he posted during the regular season.
Curry remembers how Cleveland won Game 3 here last year in the Finals, taking a surprise 2-1 lead over Golden State without injured starters Kevin Love and Irving.
“This is a hostile environment, for sure,” he said. “So you’ve got to get off to a good start and play with energy to keep ourselves in it early and not have to make crazy comebacks or do anything spectacular along the way. Just be ourselves.”
Love sustained a concussion in Game 2 and was likely a game-time decision Wednesday. Even if he plays, Cleveland’s success will mainly be dictated by James, as always.
James reiterated his talking point of the day a few minutes after originally bringing it up Tuesday.
“I would say that we all can sit here and say there is no way we can go down 3-0,” he said, and it remained to be seen if his teammates were listening.