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LeBron James is embracing the underdog role, and that’s terrifying

2015 NBA Finals - Game Two

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 07: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors during Game Two of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 7, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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OAKLAND — It’s not often that a new side of LeBron James emerges 12 years into his career. But we’ve never seen anything quite like this before. James is an underdog, and he knows it.

That’s not a role he’s used to playing, especially now. He’s still the best basketball player in the world by a considerable margin, and is virtually universally regarded as such. The circumstances swirling around the Cavaliers have made that seem not enough. With Kyrie Irving out, the Cavs are even more shorthanded than they were, and that much more pressure is on James to make up that ground.

So far, he’s done exactly that. He finished Game 2 with 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists, shouldering the same scoring load he did in Game 1 while playing more of a distributor role. He put up the points that he did despite a rough shooting night — even when his shots weren’t falling, he still controlled the pace of the game entirely. Even by the end of the fourth quarter, when the Warriors’ defenders were reading him like a book, his will was just enough to overcome it.

His coach was at a loss for words.

“Geez,” David Blatt said after about a 10-second pause. “You’d be hard pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime I can think of a name or two, but that’s the whole history of basketball that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for his group. And I think you said it the right way, he really willed his guys to win that game. That’s what a champion does, and obviously he’s a champion.”

James has nothing to lose in this series and nothing to prove to anyone. Even this win on Sunday was historic: it was the first Finals victory in Cavaliers franchise history. The only other time the Cavs were in the Finals was 2007, when James dragged a similarly undermanned group there only to be dismantled in four games by the Spurs. But James was much younger then, still yet to win a title or a league MVP award. Now, eight years later, he’s cemented himself as indisputably one of the 10 greatest players of all time, and then came back to the city where he played the first seven years of his career and won that fanbase back over. Just getting them this far is enough for now. But it’s not enough for him.

“I don’t need any extra motivation,” James said after the game. “I think our guys love it. Our guys love the fact that we’ve been counted out and come into the series being an underdog. They’re pretty much saying that especially after Kyrie got hurt and the series was over. I think our guys are using that as motivation. I use a little bit of it, but I have a lot of motivation already to just be a part of greatness and be a part of this and be a part of this atmosphere.”

If James can lead the Cavs to a title this year, with this shorthanded a roster, against this good a Warriors team, it will stand as the crowning achievement of his career. It would be in a vacuum, before even taking into account the part about delivering Cleveland its first major pro sports championship of any kind since before the NFL’s championship was called the “Super Bowl.” It’s going to be an uphill climb, bordering on impossible. But if anyone’s up to it, it’s him.

“Well, the good thing about tonight, I took 34 shots, but I had my 11 assists,” James said. “Once again, I was knocking on the 40 [points] door again. So they let me score 40 again. I’m happy I’m able to do that in a win. I’m not a high volume shooter. I’ve never been in my career. But things have changed on our team where the shots that Kevin and Kyrie would have has now been placed on myself and the rest of the guys as well. It’s what needs to be done to help our team win.

“Am I going to be in the 30s every game or things of that nature? I’m not sure. I would not like to. But if that’s what the case has to be to help us win, then I don’t have a choice.”