James looked utterly alone — and perhaps that was fitting after another game in which he had done everything he could to lift his team to a win: 29 points, 13 assists, 9 rebounds. In the first game of the series, his effort was even more striking: 51 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds.
The losses did not diminish the artistry of his performance, though. Instead, they only seemed to underscore the beauty of his labor, without the glory that comes with actually winning any games.
James, of course, is a comeback master. In 2016, his team was down 3-1 against the Warriors and he hauled them back, with a much stronger crew around him, to win the series in seven games.
This series resumes Wednesday night in Cleveland, a home court where James makes magic happen.
Yet, as he makes his eighth straight appearance in the N.B.A. finals, his trip through the playoffs this spring has had a different feel to it. Rarely, if ever, has one of the league’s supreme players — perhaps any league’s — chased a championship with less help.
“It’s my job to make sure that we’re as laser-focused as possible, do my job and continue to instill confidence in my teammates until the last horn sounds,” James said. “That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s my obligation, and I need to continue to do that.”
The results so far are not entirely the fault of James’s backups. His challenge is even more daunting because the Cavaliers are facing one of the deepest, most talented teams in N.B.A. history. The Warriors have the luxury of starting four All-Stars. After James opened the series last week by scoring 51 points, his coach Tyronn Lue was reminded by a reporter that James usually plays even better after losses.
“So that means he has to score 60 now, right?” Lue asked, deadpan.
That James even dragged this team to the finals could be considered one of his greatest achievements, which is saying something after three championships. Before the season even started, Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers All-Star point guard, demanded a trade. He landed with the Boston Celtics. Several personnel moves followed that left the Cavaliers largely bereft of top-level talent.
All the tumult has only fueled speculation about James’s future. He can declare for free agency after the season. But he is revered in Northeast Ohio, where he grew up and played high school basketball in Akron.
He was anointed a future superstar and drafted right out of high school in 2003 by the Cavaliers. He left Cleveland in 2010, outraging fans, to join the Miami Heat, where he fulfilled his desire for a championship in 2012 and won another the following year.
After returning to Cleveland for the 2014-15 season, he made good on his pledge of delivering the franchise’s first championship in 2016. So if he were to leave again this summer, perhaps fans would be more understanding. Also, how much can one man reasonably expect to do by himself, even if that man is LeBron James?
“I marvel at him every single year,” Rick Carlisle, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, said in an interview before the start of Sunday’s game. “Every year, his skills become more refined. There’s a greater economy of movement. He plays every angle so precisely. For me, it’s uncharted territory seeing a guy do this at this stage of his career.”
Other greats — Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, to name a few — were obviously just as essential to their teams. But Russell played alongside fellow Hall of Famers like Sam Jones and Bob Cousy. Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Jordan had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
James has Kevin Love, a perennial All-Star, but Love has been up and down in the playoffs, and the Cavaliers have gotten minimal production from their guards.
Even as the Cavaliers overhauled their roster this season (more than once), James tried to compensate by leading the league in minutes played. He appeared in all 82 games for the first time in his career.
In an apparent attempt at team building early in the postseason, he splurged on matching suits for his teammates to wear to arenas. When he was not moonlighting as the team’s stylist, James was hitting game-winning shots against the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs, saving the season more than once.
Against Golden State, James absorbed a blow to the face in Game 1 and has been playing with blurred vision in his bloodshot left eye ever since. Still, he continues to lead the Cavaliers’ offense at one end, while defending the Warriors’ Kevin Durant at the other. He ought to take the court in a hard hat.
James’s teammates are aware of what is being said — and written — about them. One of them, J.R. Smith, inspired a viral GIF of James’s pained expression after Smith had made a gaffe that deprived the Cavaliers of the possibility of a game-winning shot in Game 1.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Smith said. “It’s a gift and a curse. You play on his team, and you’re playing with the best player in the world and you get to witness some great historic things and be a part of it. Then, on the other side, if you don’t help that person win, they’re looking at you, too.”
James wound up playing 44 minutes in Game 2, and only took a seat on the bench once the game was out of reach. His teammates combined to shoot 27 of 70 from the field. He brushed aside a question about possible fatigue.
“I think I only got tired once tonight,” he said.
Since the start of the playoffs, James has been averaging 34.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 9 assists a game while sinking 54.4 percent of his field-goal attempts. Against the Warriors, he has somehow managed to elevate his play by averaging 40 points, 10.5 assists and 8.5 rebounds while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
The last time the league saw someone take on such a disproportionate workload was — surprise! — LeBron James in 2015, when Irving injured his knee in the first game of finals. James tried to carry the Cavaliers the rest of the way, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists, but the Cavaliers fell to the Warriors in six games.
Before that, it was probably Allen Iverson, the rocket-powered point guard who steered the Philadelphia 76ers into the finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2001. Iverson did not have an All-Star cast around him, especially late in the season. Larry Brown, who was the team’s coach at the time, joked in a telephone interview that the team had been so affected by injuries that he went searching for reinforcements at the Y.M.C.A. Iverson averaged 35.6 points during the series, which the Lakers took in five games.
“I don’t compare anybody with Allen,” Brown said, “because every day, every game that he played, he would do something remarkable. But I look at LeBron now, and he makes so many of the right plays, and he makes it all look so simple. The sign of greatness is playing on the biggest stage in the biggest games, and then raising your game. That’s what he seems to do.”
On Sunday, the Cavaliers wore matching outfits again: gray suits with short inseams and black boots. But James mixed up his look after the loss, opting for a navy blue sweatshirt under his blazer and suit shorts. He bit into an apple as he made his way outside, where his teammates waited for him on an idling bus.
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