CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 39 points in Game Three of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night. His team lost, 118-113, to a Golden State team that is gaining support as the best team in league history.
So naturally, James is taking the heat. Late in the game, with the Cavaliers leading by two points, he drove and kicked the ball out to Kyle Korver for an open three-pointer. Korver, one of the best shooters of his generation, missed the shot.
The question was whether LeBron should have taken the shot himself. Even his coach, Tyronn Lue, had issues with his team's lack of aggression down the stretch, though he was also wondering about Kyrie Irving settling for a fallaway jumper on the next possession.
Some people want you to score rather than dish in those moments, James was told. What would you say to your critics?
"I don't know if you've been here for the last couple years or heard me talk," James said. "I don't even really care. I had 101 drives last night. I don't have 101, but you get the gist of it. I'm sorry I didn't go for 102. But at the end of the day, I don't really -- what is a critic? It doesn't matter."
Oh, it matters. I've found that when people insist that they don't care, they care. It's just that they don't want the world to know how vulnerable they truly are. It's a defense mechanism.
"One of my favorite quotes, when I really stopped caring about what people say, is by Theodore Roosevelt," James said. "The Man in the Arena. So if you read that, you'll see where I'm at right now in my life."
James latched onto the quotation around the time he made his infamous "Decision" to take his talents from Cleveland to Miami, arousing resentment here and around the sports world.
He put Teddy Roosevelt's quote above his locker, in large print. I'll produce it in its entirety. After all, it's refreshing to be reminded that we once elected eloquent, literate presidents:
“It's not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or when the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
You don't post that at your locker if you don't care what people think. James cares and I don't blame him. The guy can't win. He dragged his team from a 3-1 deficit to an NBA title last June, bringing Cleveland it's first major sports title in 52 years, and still he can't do enough.
He and Kyrie Irving combined for 77 points in Game Three. It was the most points by a duo in the Finals in a losing effort. They're playing a Warriors team that won 73 games a year ago and added Kevin Durant, one of the best players in the world.
James reminds us that Golden State is the most explosive offensive team he's ever faced. He said before the Finals that the Warriors made him nervous, that it was going to be a daunting task.
"Well, you knew they were resilient, for one," he said. "I watched a lot of film on them, and I knew it was going to be one of the toughest challenges I've had because of the firepower they have, because of the mindset they were going to have. And they're a hungry group. You can sense that.
James was defiant before Game Three, insisting that it was no problem for the Cavs to engage the Warriors at their own breakneck pace. He wouldn't concede that it would catch up with him. But in the end, it was a factor. He played 45:37, far more than any player on Golden State.
He seemed worn down in the stretch. So did Irving. But the Cavs struggled without him. When he sat down late in the first quarter, the Warriors went on a 10-0 run to turn a three-point deficit into a 39-32 lead.
The Cavs had similar problems all season with James on the bench. That's why he averaged 38 minutes a game, a heavy load for 32-year-old who has played 215 career playoff games, more than Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.
So what are the Cavs to do, he was asked? How can they get more consistent production when he's on the bench?
"I don't know," James said. "I don't know the answer to that right now ... I hate it for my teammates, I hate it for myself. I hate it for everybody that's involved. And last night, it was another one of those instances. Against a team like this, those type of runs you just can't afford."
He remembered all the pertinent details of the Warriors' run when he was on the bench -- the score, the approximate time on the clock. James is a hoop savant. He arrived at Thursday's interviews with an agenda, ready to counter the usual criticism.
James knows what's being said out there, that the Warriors could be the best team ever and that Durant has surpassed him as a player. It's not a ridiculous argument. Durant is a fabulous talent and, given the Finals stage, has shown that he's a terrific defensive player.
But it's been easy for Durant to meld his talents with an established power, a deep and gifted squad that doesn't require any one player to carry a great load -- and to suffer the physical wear and tear.
No Warrior averaged more than 34 minutes this season. Durant missed 20 games with a knee injury. They won 14 games in a row without him. Can you imagine the Cavs going on that sort of run without LeBron?
Again, James cares. When people suggest that Durant did the same thing he did when he left for Miami, he's quick to point out the differences.
"Their team was already kind of put together, and you just implement a guy that's ready to sacrifice, a great talent, a guy that's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win," he said.
"But that team, they knew what they were about. He just had to come in and do what he had to do. When I left here to go to Miami, we had to build something. We brought in eight or nine guys, and we had to build something. And when I came back here, we built something again."
So James built something. Durant jumped onto a winning bandwagon. It's a good point, if self-serving. This is not a person who doesn't give a damn what critics say.
I understand people who say he should have taken the shot instead of passing. But James has always been ready to find open teammates rather than force shots himself. That's why he was such a wonderful Olympic player for Mike Krzyzewski, because he didn't need to score to be great.
It's amazing that an essentially unselfish player could be the top playoff scorer in NBA history, and still performing at his very best. Over his last eight Finals games, James is averaging 32 points a game.
He is about to lose his fifth NBA Finals in eight appearances. That fifth loss will follow him around. But to me, it's like holding it against Tom Brady for getting to 11 AFC title games and winning only five Super Bowls.
If you think Durant is better, so be it. But stop for a second and imagine LeBron on a team with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. He's still the best, even in defeat, spent in a worthy cause.