CLEVELAND -- LeBron James was pretty good on Monday night. He needed to be great. If he's not, then his Cleveland Cavaliers are probably not going to beat the Chicago Bulls.
For the past week, James has been working on mentally preparing himself for what he has to do in this series, which the Bulls lead after a strong performance in a 99-92 victory in Game 1. His intensity in preparation surprised even some in his inner circle. It wasn't his usual routine when facing a week off between series.
He was getting his body ready to deal with bigger opponents. He was publicly and privately setting the tone for his teammates that they must move on from the shock of losing Kevin Love. He has strictly stuck to his postseason media and phone blackout, save for one call to Chris Paul that lasted only a few moments to offer congratulations for the Los Angeles Clippers' Game 7 win on Saturday.
When James finally played, he put up 19 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and three steals. It was absolutely not enough. And he was totally aware of it.
James entered after a final rest with nine minutes left and the Cavs down by four on their home floor. This is the type of 50-50 situation in which having an MVP, a future Hall of Famer, the player many still refer to as the best on the planet, is supposed to step in and be the difference-maker. Score with three guys hanging on him.
Pick an opponent's pocket. Drill a 3-pointer. Get fouled and calmly make the free throws. James has done this an uncountable number of times.
It did not happen Monday. He was outplayed by Jimmy Butler, James having as many turnovers as baskets, two each. He played hard, there is no debating that, but not well enough as the Bulls took it from him.
In a game in which offense was badly needed without Love and the suspended J.R. Smith, James was the third-highest scorer on his team. The Cavs had nine turnovers; James had six of them himself, with several that were purely careless and really stung in such a game.
When looking at the overall excellent performances put forth by Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Butler -- they combined for 66 points on 48 percent shooting -- James, frankly, was not one of the best three players on the court. Especially not if you count Kyrie Irving's 30 points and six assists.
"I have to be better. I wasn't that good," James said. "I have to be much better."
He has been there. When combining his time in Cleveland and Miami, his teams have lost Game 1 of a series and rallied back to win five times. He has said almost the exact same quote after some of these games, accepting the demands and the circumstances, then answering his own challenge.
This is all transparent -- this is what he signed up for a long time ago. There have been times when it has been unfair, when his teammates don't give him a reasonable chance. Even without Love and Smith, this wasn't the case in Game 1.
Irving was terrific for long stretches. He was beaten defensively by Rose at times, and he got lost on pick-and-rolls, but he outplayed Rose head-to-head. Iman Shumpert had the best playoff game of his career, rising to the challenge of being promoted to the starting lineup and more than delivering with 22 points.
So Mike Miller, who started in place of Love, played poorly. He fought for rebounds but often couldn't stay with his man. His plus/minus was minus-20. Shawn Marion and James Jones battled on defense but gave the team almost nothing. Coach David Blatt's initial game plan turned out to be a dud, and he wasn't able to execute an in-game fix to a defensive scheme that kept losing Gasol in basic pick-and-pop plays. All of these things are going to happen.
When James is at his best, he can overcome all of these details. This was a winnable game for James to take, but instead he was flustered by the Bulls' defense, was jumping in the air without knowing where he was going to pass the ball and was firing up flat jumpers when he gave up on any play.
Nothing is lost but a single game for now. But the mandate is clear: He must summon up some of the superstar stuff for Game 2. It's a ridiculously high standard, but it's also his reality.
"This game is something we can learn from, which we will," James said. "You worry about Game 2, and you come in better. We'll be much better."