— AND - LeBron James understood what awaited him as he dressed Thursday night for Game 5. If things went for James the way they had gone in earlier games, he would not see a Game 6 in the Eastern Conference finals.
“The mood is,” as he put it, “win or go home.”
After a 112-102 win, James won’t be going home just yet. He’ll be heading to Orlando, joining his teammates there Saturday night for another win-or-go-home game against the Magic.
The pressure James will face won’t lessen in Game 6 just because the floor will be different.
“There’s always a sense of urgency when you’re down and on the brink of elimination,” James said.
So the burden on his muscular shoulders will be just as heavy for this man who would be the game’s king. But James can’t rightly wear that crown unless he can achieve what other greats of the game have.
Would Magic Johnson or Larry Bird be the legends they are today without championship rings? Would Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan without his six?
And would the Celtics mystique of the Red Auerbach era be little more than another tall tale without the rafter-full of championship banners that hang above the Garden floor as reminders?
Without the NBA titles, all would have had their greatness called into question. They would find their careers under the same scrutiny as gifted players like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone. None of them can brag in their retirement years about a championship.
Yet James, 24, is hardly in the twilight of his career. He’ll likely have more chances to win a ring. Still, can he afford to let any opportunity slip away? Will this be another season where he and the Cavaliers fail to grab the grand prize?
In a game in which he didn’t shoot particularly well, James kept the prize in his sights Thursday. He willed the Cavaliers — with his pluck and with his grit and with his pride and with his triple-double — into a performance that kept their hopes alive.
He made certain they defended their home court. For if James and the Cavs were to see their season end in disappointment, it wouldn’t be in Quicken Loans Arena where their legion of faithful could witness it.
Not this night.
Now, James and the Cavs will move forward, though they remain a long shot to defy the odds, another team trying to do what only eight NBA teams have been capable of doing: rebound from a 3-1 deficit and advance.
Had he and the Cavs lost Thursday, they had no chance of doing the improbable. With Amway Arena being as difficult a venue for visiting teams to win in as The Q, their win might simply have prolonged the inevitable: elimination.
But great players transform the improbable into the probable. Jordan did it; Magic did it; Bird did it. Even Kobe Bryant, the man who challenges James for the title of the game’s greatest, has done it; he has rose to greatness when greatness was necessary.
It will be James’ turn again Saturday in Game 6 to prove he can match their greatness — not just in his unparalleled talent but in his ability to lead other men to great heights.
If he can, he’ll return to The Q on Monday for Game 7; if he can’t, he’ll be going home empty-handed in a season filled with so much hope. He’ll be watching the NBA finals at home.
“That’s something I haven’t envisioned,” James said. “I signed up to play for a long time this season.”