LeBron: ‘Basketball IQ’ key to toppling Warriors

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James, partially responsible for ushering in the NBA’s era of superteams when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010, said that for as much talent as the Golden State Warriors possess, the greater challenge in bringing them down might be matching their collective basketball IQ.

“Now everyone is trying to figure that out,” James said of the task of beating the Warriors. “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?”

The Cleveland Cavaliers trail the Warriors 3-0 in the NBA Finals and are just 1-7 in the Finals against the Warriors the past two seasons since Golden State added former league MVP Kevin Durant to the fold in the summer of 2016.

James reflected Thursday on how the Warriors came to be, a team on the verge of its third championship in the past four years after averaging 66.3 wins in the past four regular seasons.

“Golden State, because of Steph [Curry‘s] injuries early on in his career and his contract situation and then them drafting Draymond [Green] and drafting Klay [Thompson] and them being under the contracts they were in, allowed their franchise to go out to get KD,” James said. “So they win a championship (in 2015). Then we play them and we come back from 3-1 and we beat them [in 2016]. But that was the best regular season — probably the best team I had ever played against. They go 73-9, and then you add one of the best players that the NBA has ever seen.”

Still, James emphasized, the common thread between recent juggernauts in the Big Three Boston Celtics; or his Heat teams with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; or the San Antonio Spurs teams led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard; or the current Warriors is not the All-Stars, but what’s going on upstairs between the ears.

“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?

“This is so challenging for me to sit up here and say because people who really don’t know the game don’t really know what I’m talking about. They just think that you go out, and, ‘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. So we come back here and we get the minds and we build a championship team.”

Of course, not lost on anyone is the fact that James is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract with the Cavs to explore unrestricted free agency this July.

By detailing what type of smart players it takes to win championships, James could very well have been intentionally dropping clues as to what he thinks of his Cavs teammates as well as what he will be looking for in weighing any new franchise he should decide to join.

Of Wade and Bosh, whom he teamed with in 2010, James revealed, “I knew their minds,” before they wore the same NBA uniform. Of Kyrie Irving, whom he teamed with in 2014, James said his goal was, “wanted to try to build his mind up to fast track his mind.”

If there were breadcrumbs to follow, it’s worth mentioning that in October, James said “his passing is his best quality and [his] high basketball IQ,” when asked about Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons. Then again, in February, he said, “I think George Hill‘s basketball IQ complements me,” when asked about the Cavs’ new point guard. He has made similar comments countless times about his longtime friend Chris Paul as well as Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, when asked about him in December: “It’s always team. He passes the ball. Pushes the ball up the floor. Someone you want to play with.”

In other words, all four of the presumed most likely destinations for James this summer — Cleveland, L.A., Philly and Houston — have at least one player who fits the smart teammate mold that he seeks out.

If he meant for his statements to be a reflection of what his current Cavs team is lacking, James would only hint at it, rather than state it outright.

“We have a lot of talent as well,” James said. “We’ve been in a position where we could win two out of these three games. 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?”

Green was asked about James’ praise of the Warriors’ mental strength and returned the compliment.

“I think you really learn where a guy’s IQ is and then you kind of adjust to that,” Green said. “IQ isn’t going to be everyone’s strength. You look at LeBron, he’s probably one of the smartest players to ever play the game. You can’t say that about the rest of the Cavs’ team. He’s special in that aspect. But it’s on him to make sure that what he does rubs off on them, and he puts them in the right spots. And he does do that.

“I think as far as we go, when you look at guys who are having a high IQ on our team, it’s our job to make sure we’re doing whatever we can to help other guys who may not be as strong in that area. And I think that all comes with the system we play in, the culture that we’ve built. You don’t really want to be the sore thumb sticking out.

“So, I think that’s very important and I think it’s one of the most underrated things when you’re talking about the success that we’ve had because you can’t really measure it.”

In other words, if the Cavs were to complete another historic comeback against the Warriors, Golden State will have to have a mental meltdown as much as anything.

“When you make mistakes, they make you pay,” James said. “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.”

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