CLEVELAND -- After carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers through the first three games and three quarters of the NBA Finals, all LeBron James hoped for was his teammates to carry him for two or three minutes, as he rested to start the fourth quarter in Game 4 on Thursday.
James wasn't having a memorable game -- far from 40-plus points he averaged while nearly putting up nightly triple-doubles in the series' first three games -- but he had done just enough in the third quarter to keep things close.
He played all 12 minutes of the period, racking up 10 points, six rebounds and four assists, as the Cavs cut their halftime deficit in half to trail the Golden State Warriors by six heading into the fourth.
And so he sat, counting on his team to maintain the momentum he built up, if only for a short while, so he could rejoin them for the stretch run with a chance to go up 3-1 in the series.
"I was hoping our team could buy me a few minutes," James said afterward. "I ran through those 12 minutes in the third, and I gassed out ... I was pretty much gassed out either from driving, creating opportunities for my teammates, getting to the free-throw line, getting offensive glass, just trying to make that push."
He did so much in the third that his points and assists totals in the period matched Matthew Dellavedova's for the game, and his rebounds for the period matched the Cavs' entire bench boards for the game.
"I was hoping our team could just buy me a couple minutes," James continued. "We weren't able to do that tonight in the fourth quarter."
James sat for the first 1 minute, 48 seconds of the fourth. By the time he checked back in, the Warriors had increased their lead to 10. Without him, the Cavs went 0-for-3 from the field with a turnover. Whatever James helped them build up in the third was dashed in those two minutes.
"It's difficult. You want to be out there, but also you don't want to be -- you want to be effective while you're out there too," James said. "So they made a huge run, and we just couldn't regather after that."
After the Cavs closed out the second round against the Chicago Bulls on the road, and Dellavedova's gritty play kicked off Delly Delirium, head coach David Blatt triumphantly declared during his postgame remarks: "I just think the power of team trumps all."
It was the tipping point for Cleveland's "Next Man Up" postseason mentality. Not only did they get past Chicago without Kevin Love (injury) and J.R. Smith (two-game suspension), they went on to sweep Atlanta and then take a 2-1 lead on Golden State while missing Kyrie Irving for multiple games.
Throughout the run, James, of course, was brilliant. But there always seemed to be a couple other guys, be it Smith or Dellavedova, be it Iman Shumpert or Tristan Thompson, right on down the line, that brought something to the table.
That wasn't the case in the Cavs' 103-82 Game 4 loss. James was subpar by his standards, finishing with 20 points on 7-for-22 shooting, 12 rebounds and eight assists. And there was no one, save for Timofey Mozgov and Thompson -- whose 12 points and 13 rebounds continued his strong series -- who played above his head on Thursday. Seven of Mozgov's 28 points came in the fourth when the game was already out of reach.
Smith scored four points on 12 shot attempts, going 0-for-8 from 3-point territory. About the only time his aim was on was in the postgame locker room, when asked to assess his play: "Horse s---," he said.
Shumpert wasn't close behind, missing seven of his nine attempts. Like Smith, Shumpert was most on target when asked about the ridiculous "PhunkeeDuck," a sort of Segway without the handle bars, that Smith rode in and out of the arena, nearly face-planting in the locker room after his little two-wheel device got caught on a table cloth covering the Cavs' postgame spread. "It would have been cooler if we won," he said.
Dellavedova, who still gave an honest defensive effort, looked overwhelmed on offense, missing 11 of his 14 attempts.
It's pretty simple: In order for James to maximize his skill set, he has to be a facilitator and keep the Warriors' defense guessing what he's going to do next. But in order for him to be an effective facilitator, his teammates have to hit some shots.
"They kind of made me give the ball up, seeing if some of my teammates can beat those guys," James explained. "We couldn't make any shots from the outside, but we'll take those looks again. Those guys, my guys, did a great job just stepping into them, trying to make them, being confident about them. But when you go 4-for-27 from the 3-point line, there's not much success offensively."
His teammates' blanks put James in a bad spot, and Blatt was in an impossible situation headed into the fourth as well. He saw that James was the only reason they were able to make a push in the third, but if he didn't give him a breather, he might not have anything left for the fourth.
"He's a human being, and I've got to give him a minute here or there," Blatt said. "If I don't, I'm really going to put him under more duress than he already is."
It brought to mind another quote from that Game 6 postgame in Chicago, this one from James.
"I want these guys to believe they can be superheroes," he said.
They were far from it in Game 4. They'll need to be better for the Cavs to have a chance the rest of the series.