Cavs’ LeBron James stresses importance of basketball IQ in assembling title contender

CLEVELAND — The question was about LeBron James’ journey, but could also apply to his future.

If there is one thing the Cavaliers star has learned going 3-5 in his previous eight NBA Finals, it’s that talent is not enough to compete against the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs, or even the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference during his first stint in Cleveland.

As the Cavs trail the Warriors 3-0 going into Friday night’s possible elimination Game 4 of the NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena, James said, “Not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well.”

The Warriors are on the verge of winning their third title in the past four years as the rest of the league plots how to end their dynastic run. But James said basketball IQ and coping with the pressure of the postseason must also be taken into consideration when putting together a contending team, especially since it’s likely it will have to beat the collection of analytical students of the game the Warriors have assembled.

“Now everyone is trying to figure that out. How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?” James said during his press conference Thursday at the Q. “… Sad to say, but every player doesn’t want to compete for a championship and be in a position where every possession is pressure.”

Expected to opt out of his contract in July and become a free agent, James may be playing his last game as a Cavalier on Friday. And during his nearly 6 {-minute answer to two questions, he detailed the reason why he may leave Cleveland again.

As the 15-year veteran talked about the frustration of winning only three championships — in 2012 and ‘13 with the Miami Heat and in 2016 with the Cavs — he discussed what was lacking on the Cavs rosters and what he was seeking when he signed with the Heat in 2010.

“My first stint here I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete versus the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” James said. “When you looked at [Rajon] Rondo and [Kevin Garnett] and Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], you knew they were not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too, when you were playing them. They were calling out sets. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down. It was like, ‘OK, this is bigger than basketball.’

“I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn’t succeed getting past a Boston, getting past the San Antonios of the league …”

James had known the Heat’s Dwyane Wade since 2003 and played with Wade and Chris Bosh in the Olympics. So when he was considering his free agency options, he said, “I knew their minds. I knew how they thought the game, more than just playing the game … so I linked up with them. Got some other great minds in Mike Miller; [Udonis Haslem] is a great mind but also a competitor. And guys that were talents. You build that talent — that’s what you want to try to do.”

When he returned home in the summer of 2014, joining point guard Kyrie Irving, James said he wanted to “fast track” Irving’s mind.

“I felt like in order to win you’ve got to have talent, but you’ve got to be very cerebral, too,” James said. “Listen, we’re all NBA players. Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”

James said people who don’t know the game don’t understand what he’s talking about.

“They just think … ‘Oh, LeBron, you’re bigger and faster and stronger than everybody, you should drive every single time and you should dunk every single play and you should never get tired, never.’ Like it’s a video game and you went on the options and you turned down fatigue all the way to zero and injuries all the way down to zero,” he said, laughing.

Although the Cavs became the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2016 title, the Warriors responded by adding now-nine-time All-Star Kevin Durant.

“That was probably the best team I had ever played against,” James said of the 2015-16 Warriors. “They go 73-9, and then you add one of the best players that the NBA has ever seen.”

Not only do they have stars, but Durant said he believes the Warriors’ level of intelligence is underestimated.

“I think as basketball players we should all be offended if intelligence isn’t the first thing you think about …” Durant said. “I compare us to musicians. I compare us to artists, to architects, to surgeons. I compare us to the highest at any field, because what we do is hard. We’re one percenters in the world.

“When you walk into any locker room in the NBA, I expect you to think that, ‘Oh, these guys are intelligent at what they do.’ I think that’s an underrated trait from somebody outside of the league, from outside of the locker rooms, because they don’t realize how hard the game is sometimes. It’s hard to find intelligence, character, unselfishness all at the same time. That’s rare in any profession, I think.”

This season, James knows the Cavs roster can’t measure up to that of the Warriors. Golden State has two league MVPs — Stephen Curry (2015, ‘16) and Durant (2014). Andre Iguodala (2015) and Durant (2017) were Finals MVPs. James said All-Star Klay Thompson “could easily carry a team,” and 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green is “arguably one of the best defenders and minds we have in our game.”

“Obviously, from a talent perspective, if you’re looking at Golden State from their top five best players to our top five players, you would say they’re stacked better than us,” James said.

James did not disparage the 2017-18 Cavs’ talent, but discussed what his team is lacking against the Warriors, and it might not apply to just this series.

“We have a lot of talent as well. We’ve been in a position where we could win two out of these three games,” he said. “So what do we have to do? Do we have to make more shots? Is it we have to have our minds into it a little bit more? Is it if there is a ball on the ground we can’t reach for it, but you’ve got to dive for it?

“The room for error versus a team like this is slim to none. I said last night it’s like playing the [New England] Patriots. It’s like playing San Antonio. When you make mistakes they make you pay, because they’re already more talented than you are, but they also have the minds behind it, too, and they also have the championship DNA.”

Cavs center Tristan Thompson cited “some mental collapses in the fourth quarter” of Wednesday’s 110-102 home loss that put the Cavs on the brink of elimination. He seems to understand what James seeks in his teammates, even as they have come up lacking.

“We’ve got to find a way in the fourth quarter to limit that. Whether our guys are fatigued or whatever, you’ve still got to keep the brain working and you have to dig deep,” Thompson said. “Because this team, in order to beat them, you have to have a lot of willpower, and it’s going to take a lot of energy. You’ve got to be able to find it. And wherever you’re going to take it from, whether your spirit or your stomach, you’ve got to bring it out and be able to do it.”

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