Ronald Marinez/Getty Images/NBAE
James was confident as usual, after all this is the same guy that scored 25 points in his NBA debut as an 18-year old and bested that opening scene with a triple-double in his very first playoff game last spring.
"I'm very quick," he said. "I've always got compliments on that from coaches I've played for saying I'm a quick learner. I'm able to adjust fast to what's going on throughout the course of a game or throughout the course of life, honestly. I've been pretty good with it thus far."
On Thursday, it didn't take long for him to learn a new lesson with the same quickness he took credit for a day before. Only this lesson wasn't along the lines of figuring out to "loop it, swoop it, pull" to tie your shoes or to never, ever eat yellow snow, or that biting your nails is a bad habit - oh, wait. This lesson was more of the "life ain't fair" variety.
This lesson was that the NBA Finals are a whole different ball game, no matter how quick of a learner you are.
After averaging 25.8 points and 8.3 assists per game in Cleveland's first three series with Washington, New Jersey and Detroit, LeBron started off Game 1 of The Finals by going 0-for-7 from the field with two turnovers and just one assist in the first half.
"You definitely give a lot of credit to the Spurs," James said in the postgame press conference, the student praising the teachers. "They definitely played well tonight defensively, offensively. Some of it was me missing a lot of the shots that I usually make and some of it was the defense that they put on me and on our team in general. It's like a half and half thing."
San Antonio matched Manu Ginobili or Bruce Bowen on James when he had the ball on the perimeter. The guards, with four rings and dozens of Finals games played between them, mixed up their defense on the first-timer. Early, Bowen wouldn't give him an inch, challenging James to drive into the lane where Tim Duncan was waiting for him. On other possessions Ginobili would play off of him a few steps, daring the young star to take 20-footers in a road arena filled with boisterous fans.
To James' credit, he did start to learn from his mistakes. When he was forcing it in the lane too much, he would try to drive and kick out or drive and dump it off to one of Cleveland's big men on the block. When he threw up blanks from the outside on consecutive possessions, he would try to post up Ginobili the next time down the court, only that rarely worked because as soon as LeBron turned his back to the defender to enter post-up mode, San Antonio would throw a big man like Robert Horry or Duncan running at him to try to get him to give it up.
It took James about 30 minutes of playing time, 2-for-13 shooting and five turnovers before he showed that he picked up what it takes to get it done when you're playing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. After the Spurs boosted their lead to 18 points, the largest it would grow all night, the 22-year old scored six points in a 36-second span on back-to-back 3-pointers.
That brief flurry was a flash in the pan. The fourth-year forward finished just with just 14 points on 4-for-16 from the field, eerily similar to the 10 points on 5-for-15 field goal percentage he put up in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals vs. Detroit, only in that game he supplemented his shooting with 10 rebounds and nine assists. Against San Antonio, LeBron's paltry shooting numbers were only matched by his six turnovers.
"He struggled mightily tonight," said Cleveland head coach Mike Brown about his superstar. "They did a great job. They closed down the paint, and we tried to play second pick and roll with him. Their bigs did a good job jumping out and containing him and blitzing him, so he wasn't able to get to the paint, and the couple of times he did get to the paint, he wasn't able to finish because they're bringing bodies, not just one, but they're bringing two, three bodies, and he's faced it before."
Despite the rough night on the court, LeBron wasn't down on himself after the game. After icing his feet and his lower back in the locker room, he appeared almost cheery up on the podium when addressing the media. Maybe it's from teaching himself over the years how to bounce back from nights like he had in Game 1.
"There's nothing that I can't do out on the ball court," James stated matter of factly. "I'll just have to make an adjustment and come into Game 2 with a better mindset and try to get a win."
Now that he's learned what it's like to play in The Finals and lose in The Finals, Cavs fans better hope the next step in LeBron's matriculation is learning how to win in The Finals.
Game 2 is on Sunday (9 p.m. ET, ABC). School will be in session.