OAKLAND -- It wasn't just that the Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals -- that part wasn't all that much of a surprise. It was a road game in the din that is Oracle Arena, against a team that is the of the modern NBA. A loss was what most people anticipated.
No, it was the crushing way the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1, a game that they by all rights should have won, that could rob this team of its soul. The end of regulation might have been the most painful 36.4 seconds in the history of basketball: The offensive foul on Kevin Durant that magically turned into a blocking foul on LeBron James. The missed free throw by George Hill that could have put the Cavs up one with 4.7 seconds left. And of course the boneheaded play of the 21st century by J.R. Smith, not realizing the game was tied and dribbling out the clock instead of going for the putback.
"It's one of the toughest losses I've had in my career," LeBron said before Sunday's Game 2, "because of everything that kind of went on with the game and the way we played."
After the game, you could sense the emotional weight of that loss. LeBron said they got the win taken away from them. Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said his team was "robbed." "It ain't right," he said. "It ain't right."
And now, in Sunday's Game 2, the greatest basketball player of his generation -- perhaps the greatest player of any generation -- has before him one of the most difficult tasks of his career. LeBron doesn't necessarily need to play better than he did in Game 1. In the wake of his 51-point masterpiece, playing better would be virtually impossible to do.
But he needs to lead better.
That won't be easy, because the way that the Cavs lost Game 1 is the type of thing that can destroy a team. Hell, if the Cavs get swept this series and LeBron leaves Cleveland in the offseason, you could point to those final 36.4 seconds of regulation as the moment that ended not just the Cavaliers season but this entire era of Cavaliers basketball.
At the risk of playing pop psychologist, what LeBron's biggest task is in Game 2 is to get his team to believe in itself again, and to believe that the universe is not actually working against it.
If there's any player in today's NBA who can pull off that Jedi mind trick on his teammates, that player is LeBron. The knock on LeBron early in his career was that his mental game was off -- that he didn't have the killer instinct, and that he didn't know how to lead. That narrative, once tinted with truth, has been shattered. There are few better leaders in NBA history.
Just listen to what Warriors coach (and former Michael Jordan teammate) Steve Kerr had to say about LeBron at the Warriors' Saturday practice:
"There is just so much confidence in that player amongst the group," Kerr said. "That's how it was with Michael. If we lost a game, you go back to the hotel, you're upset and then you go, 'Oh, yeah, we've got Michael. We're going to win Game 2.' That's the kind of confidence he inspired in the group. Then, the way he carried himself, it was the same way. Like, we've got this, you know? It's a huge asset to have guys with that kind of confidence."
That may be the greatest compliment any opposing coach has ever paid LeBron: Comparing the confidence LeBron inspires in his teammates to perhaps the greatest confidence-inspiring athlete of all time.
"It's a new day," LeBron said on Saturday, echoing the theme from his coach and his teammates that the Cavaliers had emotionally moved on. "You give yourself a day. If you need to take two days, OK. But today you should feel excited about the opportunity to be better and be great and move forward."
The most important element of Game 2 isn't whether the Warriors can put up a better fight defending LeBron, or whether Kevin Durant can stop turning the Warriors' beautiful brand of basketball into Durant's apparent brand of iso basketball, or whether the Cavaliers can stanch any Curry-inspired third-quarter tide.
The most important element of Game 2 is whether LeBron can make his deflated team believe in itself after one of the most controversial and painful losses in recent memory. If he can, that will be further proof of the Chosen One's all-time greatness.