CLEVELAND -- It was the first of LeBron James' NBA Finals appearances, something that's become a biannual ritual for the 12-year veteran as he faces the Golden State Warriors in this, his sixth trip to the championship round. And it was an epic failure.
James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 Finals and he was miserable in the series, shooting just 32-for-90 (35.5 percent) in the four games. He took the performance to heart and beginning with the very next season, embarked on an efficiency ascension that spanned more than half a decade.
"I went seven straight seasons with improving my efficiency," James said after the Cavs' 96-91 win Tuesday in Game 3 to go up 2-1 over the Warriors. "Seven straight, until this year. The previous seven seasons, seven straight seasons with improving my efficiency as far as shooting."
Through the first three games of the Finals, it's hard to tell what's the bigger upset: that the Cavs lead the series or that they're doing it while James is shooting nearly as poorly as he did against the Spurs all those years ago.
James has scored more points through three Finals games (123) than any other player in league history, but he's shooting just 43-for-107 (40.2 percent). He finished with 40 points, 12 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals and 2 blocks while playing 46 out of a possible 48 minutes in Game 3, but he shot just 14-for-34 while doing so.
In fact, in each of the series' first three games, he has missed at least 20 shot attempts.
And yet, with Kevin Love out because of a dislocated shoulder and Kyrie Irving out because of a fractured kneecap, James has temporarily abandoned his obsession with his personal shooting stats in pursuit of a larger goal.
"I mean, I'm not OK with it," James said when asked about his plummeting percentage. "I'm not OK with it. But I'm so outside the box right now."
In an interview with Dwyane Wade for SportsCenter after the game, Wade needled James for his high volume and low percentage. After all, as teammates the pair maxed out their efficiency together while both hitting career highs in 2013-14, with James shooting 56.7 percent and Wade hitting 54.5 percent -- unheard of for a wing duo.
"[It is] out of my character, but I have no choice. I have no choice," James told Wade. "And it's not like I'm going out and I'm just casting shots -- I'm pulling up in transition or I'm just throwing things up there. I'm just trying to put pressure on the defense and let my teammates know that I'm just going to go, no matter how it's going. I'm going to continue to fight and push forward. And I don't like to shoot this much."
James averaged 18.5 shots per game in the regular season. In the Finals, he's averaging 35.7.
Yet, his team is at peace with it. To harp on James' shaky shooting percentage or his mounting collection of misses would be missing the larger body of work here. He is controlling as many possessions as he can in order to instill a pace that suits the banged-up Cavs, and if grinding things to a halt makes him unable to find a teammate for a good shot while there's time enough to shoot it, he takes it on himself to take the shot on his own.
"During the season we had Kevin and Kyrie who were able to take a little bit of the load off LeBron in terms of how many shots or what he had to do. But right now in the playoffs, he's getting it in good spots," said Tristan Thompson. "He's getting it on the block and in terms of the matchups, who is guarding him, he is taking advantage of it. ... He's special, so he's got to do what he's got to do and if that means taking 30 shots for us to win, that's our best bet."
"Just the way he demands us to be great every play," Iman Shumpert said. "Of course he's going to lead the way. He's going to dominate the ball to make sure things go as planned, but he definitely breathes confidence into everybody."
Said coach David Blatt: "He's playing the way we want to play ... I didn't see him take a lot of bad shots at all. I thought he was great. I thought he controlled the game and helped his team to play the way that we wanted to play. And I'll take it every day."
Rich Paul, James' longtime friend and agent, said the shift in style has been somewhat counterintuitive for the Cavs star.
"I always tell my young guys that in the NBA, the best players have a short memory," Paul told ESPN.com. "A short memory. Because, especially at this stage, there's no time to dwell. You just got to go. So, for LeBron, someone who, when he gets home from a long road trip he can't go to bed until all his clothes is out of his suitcase, neatly hung up, folded, et cetera, he can't go to sleep. So, that lets you know why he's so efficient and wants to do things just like that. But at this level, that's out the window. His thing is, 'I got to win.' It seems like, Love going down, boom, Kyrie going down, now he's putting it more on himself to say, 'I got to win even more now.'"
In a short amount of time, he's trained himself to have a short memory when it comes to his misses. How else can you explain him hitting one of the biggest shots of the night -- a 3 from the top of the key with 1:44 remaining to put Cleveland up 87-80 -- when he was just 13-for-32 up to that point? He needs to keep taking those big shots in big moments for Cleveland because he's the best-equipped player they have to do so (with Matthew Dellavedova coming in a close second, apparently).
It's no little change for him. At the end of halftime in both Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, James was the last Cavs player out of the tunnel and onto the court at Oracle Arena, holding the stat sheet up in front of his face as he made the trip from the locker room. It's in his nature to know his running make and miss total as the game goes on. He can't help it.
But the Cavs' most efficient approach right now has proved to be James controlling the action, even if it means sacrificing his personal efficiency.
"This is a different challenge. This is a totally different challenge," James said. "I've never played where two All-Stars were out. So it's a different challenge for myself and it's outside the box, but it's not too far. It's not far for me to go grab. And I'm trying to do whatever it takes to help. I know you guys keep hearing me elaborate on 'whatever it takes,' but that's what I'm trying to do.
"I'm high-volume shooting, but it's not like I'm going out there and I'm high-volume shooting and I'm not doing anything else. I'm doing everything for our team to help our team win, and that's all that matters."
To his point, in that '07 Finals when he couldn't shoot it, James averaged 22 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Against the Warriors, he's averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists.
The only way you can link the two performances is through the shooting percentages and that's fine by James as long as it keeps the Cavs moving closer to a championship.
"It's win at all costs," Paul said. "Efficiency is out the window right now."