LeBron James sat in the far corner of the visitor's locker room Friday night, wrapped in ice, draped in towels, and holding court with his teammates.
Surrounded by James at their respective lockers were Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, three members of the Cavaliers' core who have embraced expanded roles in the recent days and weeks. The conversation, of which James did most of the talking, between teammates fluctuated between laughs and seemingly thorough analysis of the Game 3 that had ended just minutes earlier on a miraculous Derrick Rose 3-pointer.
Such a scenario - James instilling his wisdom on teammates - is far from uncommon, but given the circumstances of the Cavaliers facing a 2-1 deficit with a banged up core, the onus has been put on the game's best player both to perform at his highest level and get the most out of a group that hasn't yet been tested in this fashion.
On the surface James' performance in Friday night's 99-96 loss was some serious heavy lifting. In 44 minutes he scored 27 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out 14 assists. Those 14 assists translated into 34 points, meaning James had a hand in 61 of Cleveland's 96 points.
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Still, as if often the case in defeat, his blemishes took center stage. With Kyrie Irving nursing a sore foot, James was asked to handle the ball more and responded with seven turnovers. His jump shot failed him once again - he was 3-for-15 outside the painted area - and he missed a point-blank layup that would have given the Cavs a one-point lead in the game's final minute. For all James does, when his team loses the spotlight will always focus on what he didn't do.
"We have to be better," James said before narrowing his answer. "I have to be better."
Though they trail the series heading into Sunday's Game 4, the Cavaliers appear to have made the right adjustments around James to set themselves up for success. James hasn't played much on the interior as the second big man since Game 1 - with the later stages of Game 3 being an exception, when both teams went with a small-ball lineup - Tristan Thompson has arguably been the Cavs' second best player since entering the starting lineup in Game 2, and Matthew Dellavedova has proven to be more than capable on the second unit. J.R. Smith's return from a two-game suspension gave Cleveland additional depth in the backcourt, and the Cavs found their optimal closing lineup of Irving/Shumpert/Smith/James/Thompson despite Friday's loss.
But with Kevin Love already sidelined and Irving attempting to fight through pain that, with one aggravation, turns him into simply a "decoy," the already-thin Cavaliers can make all the right adjustments and still not have enough if James isn't in prime form. Against a Bulls team touting two All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol, a league MVP with optimal confidence in Derrick Rose and a feisty Joakim Noah doing all the intangibles, adjustments won't mean anything unless is James is playing at his best.
The two-time champion still hasn't shot better than 50 percent from the field in any playoff game this season, and he's shooting just 39 percent from the field in three games against the Bulls. He made one of his seven 3-point attempts Friday night while having to work for every bucket against Jimmy Butler, who has been able to focus more of his attention to guarding James than scoring with Rose catching fire in Games 1 and 3.
And yet with Love on the sideline, Irving a non-factor after aggravating his injury and James shooting 32 percent from the field the Cavaliers were 3 seconds away from forcing overtime. Contributions from Dellavedova and Smith off the bench, Thompson's work on the glass and timely 3-point shooting had Cleveland in position to steal Game 3 on a night in which they should have been blown out. That spoke volumes to James.
"We just kept fighting, and that’s what I love about this team," he said. "We just kept fighting and gave ourselves a chance at the end."
The biggest storyline surrounding the Cavaliers entering the playoffs was their lack of postseason experience. Irving, Love and Thompson all were making their second-season debuts, while Shumpert, Smith and Mozgov had never gone into a postseason with a target on their backs. None of those players had ever faced a deficit in a hostile environment like the one they'll face on Sunday, needing a win in Game 4 to avoid a 3-1 deficit heading back to Cleveland.
The good news for James is that he's been in this position before, and he's thrived in it. Thirteen times a James-led team has trailed in a playoff series with the following game on the road. A young James began his career 0-5 in such games. But starting in 2010, the year he made his first trip to the Finals, he's 7-1 on the road when trailing in a series. And in those most recent eight games, James has averaged an eye-popping 33.4 points on 56 percent shooting, 11.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in nearly 43 minutes per game. One of the game's smartest players knows when his back's against the wall, and he has the ability to take over a game when necessary.
That time is now. But more than just his own readiness, he has the confidence in the rest of his group to answer the call Sunday.
"I already know how we’re going to respond: the same way we did in Game 2 [a 15-point Cavs win]. Will that result in a win? We don’t know. But I don’t have any doubt of how we will play on Sunday," James said confidently. "We’re going to give ourselves a chance."
That chance will begin, and end, with James.