CLEVELAND -- It seemed inevitable, by then.
The crushing weight of what another loss in the NBA Finals will mean to LeBron James.
By the time Draymond Green got in his head, LeBron's last-ditch effort had failed -- to take the game back from Steph Curry and Golden State, to stave off disaster, to prevent what will be a 2-5 career record in the NBA Finals once the Warriors, who went on to a 108-97 win Friday night and now command a 3-1 series lead, close this thing out. Which they most certainly will do, probably Monday in Oakland.
Perhaps LeBron saw, or felt, all of that pressing down when he lost his cool against Green. They had to be separated, and LeBron unleashed a tirade toward the pesky, annoying and increasingly dirty player.
Green very well might have hit LeBron in the groin, something becoming all too common for the Warriors' player. And that kind of cheap shot will certainly make a man lose his cool.
"That's what caused me to have words with him," LeBron said afterward.
This is the NBA Finals.
This is LeBron James, the guy the Cavaliers look to for all things.
You have to keep it together.
Which is why more than just that encounter with Green probably explains how a player of LeBron's uber skills and -- this cannot be overstated -- crucial importance to his team lost his cool. In the fourth quarter. Of Game 4 of the NBA Finals. With his team on the verge of letting the Warriors win on Cleveland's home court. In a league where no team has ever come back in the Finals from a 3-1 series deficit.
Because LeBron is about to lose another shot at a ring.
LeBron has an ever evolving and complicated legacy, and in the face of trying to shape that to his benefit -- and to bring this part of Ohio he loves a championship -- he simply did not play well enough. Not by LeBron James' standards. Not by a long shot.
His plus/minus was a game-worst -12. Look past his 25-13-9 line. LeBron is, and should be, judged by other standards. He's LeBron.
Leading up to letting Green get under his skin -- or maybe it was exasperation with this impenetrable wall this Warriors team has become for him -- he was ineffective. The Warriors took a two-point lead into the fourth quarter. Curry was great from then on, once he finally entered the final period at the 7:30-mark. The same could not be said for LeBron, who played the entire fourth.
Over one key five-minute stretch in that final, pivotal quarter, LeBron missed a three-pointer, attacked the rim and lost the ball under his legs for a turnover, got rejected, scored and then missed another three. All before he told his team, in his altercation with Green, that these guys were in his head. LeBron did have 11 points that quarter, but four of them came on layups with less than 30 seconds left and the game a foregone conclusion, and another two came within the quarter's opening two minutes.
We can also dismiss this notion that LeBron has no help. Kyrie Irving was a star -- dare I say Dwyane Wade-like? -- on 14-of-28 shooting for 34 points, and with a focused aggression until the very end. As the fourth quarter unwound and slipped away from the Cavaliers, it was Irving who continued to attack, and LeBron, aside from his strange altercation with Green, who either sputtered or, worse, watched.
Tristan Thompson was again, at times, a force, and his 10 points and seven rebounds in just 28 minutes again seemed to justify his large off-season contract. Kevin Love added 11 points on just six shots off the bench, plus five rebounds, in only 25 minutes of action.
This loss must fall on LeBron James. He is the Chosen One. It is on him, fair or not, and he's now on the brink of another Finals loss and a 2-5 record when a championship is on the line. And, increasingly notably, an 0-3 Finals mark when Pat Riley and the Miami Heat aren't in the picture.
When, simply, it's LeBron's team.
How to make sense of this?
LeBron is one of the most interesting and complicated players in the game, to say nothing of superstars in the world. He is both responsible for that record and a victim of his own successes.
Seven NBA Finals appearances, including six straight, is remarkable. It is a mark of true and rare greatness. And yet, it is the Jordan standard through which we judge him. Through which we should judge him. He asked for it. He chased it. There's actually no shame in being Icarus, if you have the talent and guts to charge toward the sun. But if you fall, don't look and blame us gapers and watchers. Ambition does not come easy, or cheaply, or, often, without consequences.
Let's not it get twisted on this front: LeBron James will end his career as one of the 10 greatest players ever. But forget passing Jordan. If you go 2-5 in the NBA Finals, and you stay at two rings (caveat: there are seasons ahead to change that) can we really put him comfortably ahead of Magic, Shaq, Duncan, perhaps even Kobe?
Being, say, the sixth- or seventh-greatest player of all time is a thing to be utterly celebrated. It's also, for this one particular guy, a striking disappointment. That's the thing about LeBron: He can be both worth celebrating and a striking disappointment.
Or take the present moment: Can the argument over Steph Curry vs. LeBron really be such an affront to LeBron supporters if, again, the Warriors win -- and Curry lifts his team in the Finals in a way LeBron could not? Curry had 38 points Friday night. He had 13 in the fourth quarter. He scored 24 of his 38 in the second half. Most important, his team won. And, as noted, LeBron was largely absent or ineffective as the game and ultimately the series came down to the wire.
Even this game was a microcosm of the nuances that do and will define LeBron James. He was one assist shy of a triple-double, but he couldn't summon enough of that greatness in a fourth quarter in which his team desperately needed him.
His numbers in Game 4 are gaudy, and his seven turnovers were destructive.
He was passive throughout much of the end of the game -- and then, with Green, all that rage and frustration came out too little, too late, and in the wrong way.
What do we make of LeBron James?
That he knows his place in the game, how hard it is to win an NBA championship, and that a little bit of both of those things are again slipping away.
This series is over. And with it, like LeBron James' cool when that became clear, goes another chance for one of the greatest players of all time to quiet the critics who see in his shades of gray all the smudges and not enough of the successes.
But this, too, is true: LeBron James let Dryamond Green and the Warriors get in his head. And that an all-time great cannot afford to do. Not when he's chasing the sun.