The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a two-games-to-none hole against the Boston Celtics. What now?
Critics who have said the Cavaliers are a one-man team got even more ammunition on Tuesday night. LeBron James had a triple double with a game-high 42 points. It was his fifth 40-point game of the N.B.A. playoffs, but unlike in the first four, this time Cleveland lost, 107-94.
James, who has been the star of every team he has played on, seems to be carrying more of the load than ever. The five 40-point games is the most in any of his postseasons.
Worryingly for Cavs fans, James seemed to tail off in the game. He poured in 21 points in the first quarter as Cleveland raced to an early lead. But he had only 21 more the rest of the way.
Cleveland also lagged defensively later in the game, allowing the Celtics to shoot 56 percent in the third quarter, and go from 7 points down to 7 ahead.
The Cleveland supporting cast wound up with underwhelming numbers. Kevin Love had 22, but the other starters did not stand out. Tristan Thompson had 8 points, George Hill 3, and J.R. Smith was 0 for 7 for a goose egg. Smith was 0 for 8 in Game 5 of the Pacers series, but the Cavs won behind 44 from James. This time they could not overcome those bricks.
Smith also shoved Al Horford and picked up a flagrant foul followed by a technical. “It was a good call; I blatantly pushed him,” Smith told reporters candidly.
As for the Celtics, their balanced attack included six players in double figures, and produced a notably fresher team in the late stages.
Can the Cavs possibly turn the series around? Teams that start down, 2-0, in N.B.A. playoff series are 19-281, a dispiriting 6 percent success rate.
The Cavs at least are leaving Boston. The Celtics are 9-0 at home in the playoffs, but only 1-4 on road. And while 6 percent isn’t a lot, it’s not zero. Five teams have come back from that deficit since 2012.
One of them was the Cavaliers, in their championship season of 2016, when they lost their opening two games to the Warriors by 15 and 33 points. But they rallied to bring a championship to Cleveland. James was outstanding in the wins, scoring 32, 41, 41 and 27. But he was ably assisted by Kyrie Irving (25 points a game in the series, but now departed as a free agent) and Smith (11 a game and no 0-fers).
“We have an opportunity to go back home, protect home court,” James told reporters. “We’re going to use these days to really dive in on what needs to be done to help our ball club be successful.”
The Cavaliers are currently rated by bookmakers as underdogs in this series, of course. But only about 2-1 underdogs; that translates to about a 33 percent chance of winning the series, far better than the 6 percent that history might predict. Part of the reason is lingering faith in James to deliver, as he has so many times before. But for the Cavaliers to rally, he will certainly need some more help.