CLEVELAND (AP) — His eyes were slits, barely open. LeBron James looked as if he could nod off at any second, drop his head on the table and take a much-deserved nap.
Carrying a team, along with the hopes of a city desperate for a championship is exhausting.
“Obviously, I’m not getting much sleep,” he said.
Or a lot of help.
Through sheer force and will, James is not only pushing the banged-up Cavaliers forward in these NBA Finals, he’s piecing together an historic personal performance. Playing the way he has to, but not how he prefers, James has his team within two wins of a title that even he didn’t think was likely when the season began.
Yet here are the Cavs, down two All-Stars, their fill-in point guard trying to re-hydrate himself after being hospitalized for dehydration and their best perimeter defender barely able to lift his left arm over his head, leading the Golden State Warriors 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Thursday night.
After scoring 40 points in Game 3, James didn’t watch TV highlights of Cleveland’s 96-91 win. Instead he popped on an episode of the Food Network show “Chopped” at 2:30 a.m. He claims to be unaware that he’s doing something special.
“I know we’re up 2-1. I know our team is fighting for our lives. We’re undermanned. We’re under-matched and we’re fighting,” he said. “That’s all I know.”
In three games, including two that went to overtime, James has scored 123 points, breaking Rick Barry’s previous finals record of 122 set in 1967. He’s scoring more because he’s shooting more, forced to pick up the slack with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — the other two-thirds of Cleveland’s Big 3 — recovering from surgeries.
The stats are eye-popping, but James’ biggest contributions can’t be found in the box score. He’s dictating the tempo of each game either by milking the 24-second shot clock or attacking the rim when the moment’s right.
“He’s playing inside, outside, trying to get to the line, mixing it up a little bit,” said Warriors guard Andre Iguodala, who has matched up against James. “He’s trying to work it to his advantage.”
James has had the upper hand so far, but the Warriors left the floor after Game 3 feeling encouraged. They rallied from a 20-point deficit and were within 1 point before the Cavs closed them out.
League MVP Stephen Curry made five 3-pointers and scored 17 in the fourth quarter, but had three costly turnovers that hindered Golden State’s comeback.
The Cavs need to keep Curry corralled, and that job has belonged to guard Matthew Dellavedova. He scored 20 points but pushed himself too hard in Game 3 and wound up in the Cleveland Clinic being treated for severe cramping. Dellavedova was released from the hospital Wednesday in time to join his teammates for their film session and a light workout at Quicken Loans Arena.
He expects to be ready for Game 4.
“I told him I was going to limit his minutes,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “And he said, ‘No, you’re not.’ Delly’s tank is low, but we’re doing everything we can to fill it back up.”
Dellavedova has blossomed into a cult hero in Cleveland, where fans have embraced his hustle and heart. He threw himself all over the floor for 38 minutes in Game 3, once diving over Cleveland’s bench and into the second row of seats while trying to save the ball.
“Everything that he has, he lays out on the floor. I think he dove on the ground last night an NBA Finals record six times,” James joked. “And he was on the ground again in the hospital, so you could say seven times.”
James laughed when a reporter from Australia asked if he would be in favor of the government in his teammate’s homeland knighting him.
“I’m all for it,” James said, cracking up. “Whatever that guy wants or needs, I’m all for.”
The Cavs also got positive news on guard Iman Shumpert, who bruised his left shoulder in Game 3 but didn’t sustain any structural damage.
“I’m all right, this isn’t the regular season,” Shumpert said. “It would take a lot for me not to play.”
It remains to be seen if James can continue to play at his astounding level. At some point, physical and mental fatigue will wear him down, but two wins from a title he’s not about to stop.
“It’s been a difficult challenge,” he said. “Being the sole leader of a team and franchise, it’s taxing. But I accept the challenge. I accept it all.”