OAKLAND, Calif. -- Though his exoskeleton during Sunday's Game 2 might have provided evidence to the contrary, LeBron James is not a machine.
James carried the perfect anatomy to complement the cyborg persona he's embodied during this 2018 postseason run, sporting a Terminator-esque,all evening, the product of a Draymond Green poke to the face in Game 1. But on this night, it was clear from the beginning of Golden State's 122-103 Game 2 win that LeBron is just a man -- a very tired man.
Before the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr refused to reveal his revised strategy following James' 51-point Game 1 assault that nearly stole home-court advantage for the Cavaliers, but it didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to figure it out. They came out much more aggressive, throwing double-teams at him and trying to force the ball out of his hands to make someone else beat them.
"I thought we at least made him somewhat uncomfortable at times," Kerr said after the game. "I mean, just, you've got to do your best. You've got to pressure him. You've got to know he's going to end up with 30 points and a triple-double and all that stuff because he's that good. But we just made things a little more difficult for him tonight."
Just a reminder about the Marvel universe in which LeBron James currently operates: He had 29 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds, and the opposing coach is talking about how difficult they made things for him. But that's the deal with LeBron in this series -- he can't simply be great. He has to be transcendent to give the Cavs even the slightest chance of achieving one of the biggest upsets in sports history. After all, his near-perfect Game 1 still wasn't enough.
By the second quarter of Game 2, it was clear that he wasn't going to drop another 50-piece at Oracle. James was 2-for-7 in that quarter, and missed four shots in the paint -- shots that made everyone in the arena do a double-take when they didn't go in.
We've been spoiled by LeBron's ability to finish through traffic over the course of his career, but on Sunday he looked, well, human. His passes lacked their usual zip and were deflected regularly, making it difficult for Cleveland to get into any sort of flow offensively.
LeBron's teammates and coaches continue to insist that their superstar just doesn't get tired -- George Hill called him "a machine" after Game 2 -- but it took just one glance at James to know that his battery wasn't fully charged on Sunday.
Of course, there's no way James would ever admit to weakness -- that's a human ailment. He needs to convince his teammates, even himself, that he is indeed a cybernetic organism programmed to ensure Cleveland's survival.
"I think I only got tired once tonight," James said after the game. "So, I mean, they doubled me a few times when I caught the ball in the post, something they didn't do in Game 1. So I got off the ball, trusted my teammates. But as far as working harder, I think I got tired once."
Even if we take LeBron at his word, that he wasn't tired, it was because he was conserving energy on both ends of the floor throughout the game. He picked and chose his spots, but was largely happy to take the Warriors double-teams and make the on-time, on-target pass to his teammates.
But as they've proven repeatedly in these playoffs, his teammates simply cannot be relied upon. Outside of a brief stint from Hill in the first half and a strong third quarter from Kevin Love, the supporting cast once again stayed behind the curtain. The Cavs shot 41 percent from the field, and were 9-of-27 from the 3-point line -- a mark that becomes laughable when you realize that Stephen Curry made aby himself in 10 fewer attempts.
It all underscored the fact that LeBron just can't have an off game -- even if it would be a spectacular game for any normal basketball player. He has to go to the rim with ferocity, make step-back 3s and impose himself physically on pretty much every single play. But that's no easy task against the vaunted Warriors defense ... in your 102nd game of the season.
On one possession you're guarded by Green, arguably the best defender in the league when engaged (and he's ALWAYS engaged when he's guarding LeBron). On the next possession it's Kevin Durant, a 7-footer with the wingspan of a 747 and a renewed defensive focus. Then if you get past them you have the quick hands of Curry and Klay Thompson poking at the ball, not to mention another athletic 7-footer, JaVale McGee, or a punishing vet sure to deliver a forearm shiver, David West, waiting for you at the rim. Oh yeah, and this team is still missing Andre Iguodala.
All this to say, LeBron faces a monumental task. It's only natural for him to get fatigued, to defer to his teammates with the desperate hope that this time they might actually do their jobs. But that's not going to happen. In Game 3, LeBron needs to play with force from the beginning and never relent. He needs to score 40, 50 -- maybe even 60 -- and do it in a punishing way.
It's a lot to ask from the most finely tuned machine, even more to ask from a tired, frustrated man.