After falling in the NBA Finals, LeBron James revealed how he suffered a serious hand injury after Game 1, what factors will go into his free agency decision this summer and why he came back to Cleveland. USA TODAY Sports
One minute the NBA Finals were a drama-free sweep, with Golden State simply superior to LeBron James’ undermanned Cleveland team that had just fallen in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday night. And then in the next, as the Warriors poured champagne at “The Q” for the second time in four years and reporters prepared to pepper James about his forthcoming free agency, a massive and mysterious subplot emerged.
James, as first reported by USA TODAY Sports, had suffered a hand injury after the Cavs’ Game 1 overtime loss back on May 31. In a fit of frustration, he took his wrath out on an innocent whiteboard in the visitor’s locker room at Oracle Arena that night. And just like that, with James suffering a deep bone contusion on his right shooting hand that he feared was a fracture, this already-daunting challenge became Mission Impossible.
“I pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand,” James said as he sat with a softcast on the right hand.
Here was the game’s greatest player, the closest thing to Thanos as there is in today’s NBA universe, and he had done “self-inflicted” damage to his Infinity Gauntlet while playing on the grandest stage.
The timing of the revelation led to all sorts of speculation, with fans and media members suspecting the leak was coming from James’ camp as a way to provide cover for his latest Finals loss. But word of James’ injury did not originate from his camp, and it makes little sense he would be eager to reveal this lapse in judgment.
Yet when James appeared on the postgame podium with his cast, then joked about how all the cameras started snapping when he raised it over the table, it only fueled the fire of faulty assumptions. The assertion from James’ side, however, is he only wore the cast because he had already been told that the news was out.
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According to a person with knowledge of the situation, James — who was briefed on the latest media reports shortly before coming to the podium — would not have worn the cast if his injury had not already been reported. His teammates and coaches knew what had happened, and it’s a wonder how it didn’t come out sooner. It’s also unclear if James or his associates would have shared the news at a later time, but there were no plans to pull the curtain back that night. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
James, who never came close to matching his virtuoso performance Game 1 during those last three games, didn’t go into detail about how much the injury affected his play. He explained the human side of it all, how the comedy of errors in the series opener put him over the edge.
There was the George Hill missed free throw that would have won it in regulation, then the J.R. Smith brain freeze when he lost track of the score, the timeout that Cavs coach Ty Lue left unused, and the many calls the Cavs didn’t agree with. And then there was James, taking that razor-thin margin of error between the teams and making it even smaller with one painful swing.
“I had emotions on (how) the game was taken away from us; I had emotions of (how) you just don’t get an opportunity like this on the road versus Golden State to be able to get a Game 1,” he said.
The lack of clarity about how all these events unfolded turned the situation into a Zapruder film scenario. A video of him exchanging elaborate handshakes with his sons immediately after Game 4 had some fans crying foul, as did the replay of his two-handed, off-the-backboard dunk in Game 3 that he finished with such force. One fan even superimposed the famous “Crying Jordan” meme on James’ cast.
But then ESPN published side-by-side photos comparing his swollen right hand to his healthy left, and it seemed clear he was hurting. James’ hand was so swollen after Game 1 that the initial MRI didn’t reveal clear results, with a second required later to determine that there were no fractures. As the debate about what it meant raged, it seemed to come down to this: Those who liked James would likely marvel at his ability to still produce at a high level despite being injured, while others would blame him for his blunder.
As for the question of how much James’ injury impacted these Finals? It’s impossible to tell. Only James knows for sure.
Considering how dominant he had been at the start of the series, scoring a playoff career-high 51 points (59.3% overall; three of seven threes) to go with eight assists and eight rebounds, the gap between the before-and-after numbers is stark enough to make this the NBA’s latest what-if scenario.
- In the final three games, he averaged 28.3 points (49.2% shooting overall and 27.3% from three-point range on just 3.7 attempts), 10.7 assists, and 8.7 rebounds. In between, the Warriors’ best option for defending James, veteran Andre Iguodala, had returned from a left leg injury in Game 3 after missing the first two games.
- James’ Game 4 performance — 23 points (seven of 13 shooting), eight assists, seven rebounds and six turnovers — was the strangest of them all. He attempted just one three-pointer and took three shots in the second half (17 minutes). It didn’t take long for the criticism to come. TNT analysts Charles Barkley, Chris Webber and Grant Hill were all highly critical of James on NBATV before the news of his hand had been revealed.
“I let the emotions get the best of me,” James had said.
As for whether he might have gotten the best of the Warriors if he never took that swing, we’ll never know.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.