“Untested?” said James, almost in protest. “This is the playoffs.”
Maybe he was tempering his thoughts before the game here Wednesday night. Maybe James feared his words, if injudiciously used, might provide the kindling that ignites a talented team like the Orlando Magic.
But had James said anything else, his words might have hinted that the path to the NBA Finals has no roadblocks.
And if James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had hopes of avoiding a stern test along the way, they discovered how improbable that is.
In the first true test they have faced in the playoffs, the Cavs flunked. They lost to Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and the Magic, 107-106.
Sporting an 8-0 record from the first two rounds, the Cavs seemed well on their way to making it 9-0. In the first half, they played as pure a half as they have produced this postseason.
They didn’t have a single turnover, an almost unthinkable total against a team with Howard patrolling its interior defense.
Everything went right for the Cavaliers, including the made-for-SportsCenter ending to the half. Mo Williams sank a 67-footer that gave the Cavs a 63-48 lead.
“They took us apart,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.
But NBA games aren’t won in the first half, a lesson that Van Gundy, Howard and the Magic taught James and the Cavs in the second. For as perfect as the Cavaliers might have played early, they couldn’t duplicate it late.
“Our guys did a very good job of keeping their heads and staying in the game,” Van Gundy said.
Having found its bearings, the Magic made most of a 15-point deficit vanish in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Magic wiped out the rest of it.
Under the pressure of a close game late, Orlando would make the big shots: Lewis’ 3-pointer with 14.7 seconds left being the biggest of the big shots. Under pressure of a close game late, Orlando played the tighter defense.
“We tried to keep LeBron from scoring 50,” said Howard, smiling.
And it was Orlando and its defense — not the Cavs and James, whose career playoff-best 49 points went for naught — that showed what close game after close game can do for a team when victory or defeat hangs in the balance.
When it mattered, the Magic showed the resolve that only comes in lessons gleaned from a grinding, pressure-filled series like the one against the Boston Celtics. In the end Wednesday, the Magic played the sounder, more complete game.
The Magic had been tested — time and again.
So have the Cavs, too — now.
Surely, no one can mention that to LeBron James again.
Not after this one-point loss.
“Nobody said it was gonna be easy,” James said. “It’s just one game.”