With Cavs at a crossroads, LeBron stares down another challenge

BOSTON -- A 96-83 loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday puts the Cleveland Cavaliers one loss away from ending their season. One loss away from ending a streak of three trips to the NBA Finals. One loss away from snapping LeBron James' personal string of seven straight appearances in the championship round. One loss away from James potentially walking out the door as a free agent this summer, saying goodbye to Cleveland a second time after spending 11 of his 15 seasons in the pros playing for the Wine & Gold.

The drumbeat is getting louder around a league that is anticipating the end of Cleveland's dominance in the East and suggesting a shift in power to whichever team James chooses next. Meanwhile, James sat calmly at his locker late Wednesday night and spoke about the quietest activity there is: reading.

James' longtime athletic trainer and friend Mike Mancias gifted the four-time MVP a copy of "The Alchemist," by Paulo Coelho. James recently cracked its spine, flipping through about half the book in the past couple of days.

"What do you give a guy that through his hard work now has access to explore whatever sparks his interest? Well, I thought you can't go wrong with sharing a good book," Mancias told ESPN.

The journey that the main character, Santiago, undergoes in search of his personal legend spoke to Mancias as he considered James' journey through basketball. Santiago, a shepherd boy, dreams of finding treasure by the great pyramids in Egypt and listens to the voice inside him, opening his life up to a world he never would have known.

"When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it," is a line from the book often cited, distilling its message into a single hopeful phrase.

Here James is, amid another journey through the playoffs -- one that already has featured more thrills than some players will experience for an entire career in one Game 7, one upset sweep of a No. 1 seed, two buzzer-beating game winners, three triple-doubles and six 40-point games -- saying that he believes he already has achieved his personal legend, but there's still more to go.

He might have his treasure in the form of a purpose in life, his family and all of his accomplishments in basketball so far, but the journey still excites him.

Coming back from down 3-2 is something he has done multiple times before, including once against this same franchise. In 2012, he played one of the greatest games of his career in a win-or-go-home Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, when he put up 45 points and 15 rebounds in TD Garden.

But nothing -- not what this summer might hold, not what he has done in the past, not the potentially conflicting pursuits of personal legends by Boston's bright young core -- is stopping him in this moment from giving his all to try it again.

"I like the challenge," James said as he tore ice packs off his back, knees and elbow and readied for his postgame news conference. "If you put the challenge in front of my face, I'm going to go for it."

Is James tired? Well, yes. He might have said up at the podium that, "I'm fine," and, "I didn't mention fatigue, either ... one of you guys did," but he can feel the accumulation of eight straight months of basketball.

The prospect of getting on a plane to go home to play a Game 6 in less than 48 hours, with the reward being the chance to get on another plane to fly back to Boston to play a Game 7 in less than 96 hours, doesn't excite him.

He struggles to sleep on planes. And 15 years into his career, he knows his body well enough that sleep will be the most vital form of recovery he can hope for leading up to tipoff on Friday night.

It has been a long season for James and the Cavs for a lot of reasons. If Cleveland forces a Game 7, James realized it will be his 100th game played between the 2017-18 regular season and 2018 playoffs.

That just happens to be the most games he has played in a regular season and playoffs combined, back in 2010-11 -- his first season with the Miami Heat. The 100th game that year came in a Game 6 loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, and that campaign nearly broke him. It made him angry. It tested his love. It challenged his want.

"I like the challenge. If you put the challenge in front of my face, I'm going to go for it."
LeBron James on competing for a championship

But it was the basis for the rest of his journey that followed -- three rings and three Finals MVPs in the five subsequent years.

Will the 100th game lead to a 101st game this time around? Will it end at home with Game No. 99? Is he setting himself up for failure either way considering that beating Boston only means potentially falling to 3-6 personally all time in the Finals if the Cavs can't contend with the offensive juggernauts out West?

If those questions were weighing on him, you couldn't tell by talking to him late Wednesday night. He's looking forward to seeing the rest of the journey unfold ahead of him.

It's not like he hasn't faced elimination already in these very playoffs. The Cavs had to win a Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers just to get out of the first round. James had to play through cramps -- the one recurring hiccup that one of the most machinelike bodies the sport has ever seen can't seem to shake -- to do so.

"You start thinking like, 'Is this it? Could this be it?' That's just human nature," James said that night after outlasting Indiana. "And then the other side of my brain was like, 'Let's go make something happen. Let's go, that's what you here for.'"

And James is still here, in this moment, a player on the Cavaliers trying to win a game in Cleveland in front of his home fans on a Friday night.

His legacy might have taken less flak if his season were already over. The critics would have less ammo if the Cavs had lost to the No. 1-seeded Raptors in the second round, rather than potentially falling to a Celtics team that is missing both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and whose leading scorer in Game 5 was the 20-year-old Jayson Tatum.

Others can try to shape his legacy. James can only stay true to his personal legend.

"Of course I always will want to compete for a championship," James said at his locker when asked whether it would all be easier if he were already on vacation by now. "I'll always take that opportunity."

And while he still has a few dozen pages left of "The Alchemist" to read before he finishes it, he did share a favorite factoid about the book: The original publisher of the book dropped Coelho and his story from its printing presses. It didn't think it was a money maker. Thirty years later, it's an international best-seller and has been translated into some 70 different languages.

That is to say, struggles are temporary. The journey is constant.