LeBron has but one option: Play like an all-time great and win, no matter what

There seems to be a misunderstanding about who LeBron James is and where he fits into the pantheon of both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the National Basketball Association.

After the Cavs' Game 4 loss to the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals knotted the series at 2-2, that misconception spread. This idea that LeBron should be judged by some standard for mere players, or even mere stars.

This notion that, given another sterling performance, it wasn't his fault.

Incorrect.

Here's the thing: If LeBron wants to be the best player in the game -- and he has in fact said, to me and others, that he wants to be the best player of all time -- then that player needs to arrive in full force in Game 5. And win.

No excuses. No shade. No blame, well-aimed or not. Just a team on his shoulders, a "W," and the execution of the utterly expected no matter how spectacularly he makes it happen.

Yet Monday night LeBron himself, intentionally or otherwise, spread this idea the Raptors' win perhaps wasn't his fault.

"I think I played to the game plan that I wanted to play, both offensively and defensively," he said afterward. "For me, I gave everything that I had in the 46 minutes that I played, both offensively and defensively. I felt great. Tried to get my guys involved, get myself involved. My individual game plan was pretty good."

Here's another thing: It doesn't matter. Everything fair -- and everything not fair -- is on him. That's the burden of chasing history. That's the burden of wanting to be like Mike.

Kevin Love has shot 36 percent from the field this postseason? Win anyway. Kyrie Irving is 5-of-23 on 3s this series? Still LeBron's problem. The Cavs were a dismal 13-of-41 from deep in that Game 4 loss, even though LeBron took just three of those shots? Don't want to hear it.

This isn't about blame. That's for lesser men, for mere mortals. This is about greatness. This is about rising above all obstacles -- those presented by adversaries as well as teammates -- and either taking one of the game's most coveted spots, or not.

This is so true I hate to even belabor an argument over blame. Yet let's note: This is not the 2007 Finals team of LeBron James and a bunch of guys he carried. This team has Irving, and Love, and J.R. Smith, and several guys like Tristan Thompson that LeBron certainly wanted to be part of his pursuit of glory.

The other day, a friend of mine told me thinks I'm hard on LeBron. That it borders on actively disliking King James. That I hold him to an unfairly high standard.

His second point is wrong because his other two are pretty true. I am hard on LeBron. I do hold him to an incredibly high standard. Why? Because I do like him -- as I do any athlete who has had the guts and greatness to try and touch the sky, to soar above every other athlete who has come before him.

I root for Tiger Woods. I root for Tom Brady (even though I think he's a cheater). I root for Roger Federer, and now Novak Djokovic. I root for Nick Saban (sorry, I do), Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, all of those who have come along and made a run at greatest ever of their particular sport. I root for history, because, unable to make it myself, I want to watch it unfold. If I sat outside with my kids, looked up and saw Icarus flying like hell for the sun, I'd cheer for him, too. Just as I'd know he'd probably end up falling hard.

Chasing greatness is a dangerous business.

Of all of these, LeBron is the best athlete, the most likely to unseat an unassailable standard (Jordan's), and certainly one of the most interesting. LeBron is cool. Smart. Complicated. Nuanced. Neither the saint his machine would have you believe, nor the devil the haters would try and conjure before you. He's a miracle of an athlete who happens to be an even more interesting human being. And that -- both of them -- comes with drawbacks.

Easier, and safer, to be Charles Barkley, or Shaquille O'Neal, any other all-time great who didn't have the arrogance, God-given talents and hardheadedness to dance with all-time status. You can be liked -- even adored -- in that second-tier of excellence. No one complains about the 2 percent. Better to be there than the 1 percent if criticism and ridicule make you uneasy.

The greatness LeBron openly seeks means love or hate. It means touching the sun, or watching your wings melt. You either get there, or you don't.

So no. There's no getting around it. I, and so many others, have marveled at LeBron's skill, at his passion, at his basketball IQ, and at, certainly, his aching ambition. And I love all of it. But it also means a loss to the Toronto Raptors in this series is a thing of utter failure. Even if Kevin Love goes 0-for-his-next-30.

It means not making a sixth straight NBA Finals -- particularly given that 2-4 record with a championship on the line -- is a failure.

It's not a sign of hate. It's a sign of respect.

And it remains true: That LeBron James, having openly stated he wants to be better than Jordan and possessing the talent that could make such a bold statement come true, will be judged by the same rarified standards that we use to look upon Mike.

That means LeBron James, starting in Game 5 Wednesday against the Raptors, had better do what all-time greats do: Simply take over, and win.

Anything short of that is, for him, his failure. And his alone.

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LeBron must win Game 5, no matter what it takes. USATSI
National Columnist

Bill Reiter began his career as a newspaper journalist before becoming a national columnist at CBS Sports. He also hosts a weekday radio show in Los Angeles. Bill has covered the NBA, MLB, college football... Full Bio

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