A physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted LeBron James stood in front of Doris Burke right after the biggest win in Cleveland Cavaliers history.
“LeBron, what exactly did it take from you tonight?”
He’s not wrong.
It was one thing when Kevin Love – a three-time All-Star – was declared out for the postseason during the Boston series; the Cavs still stood a solid chance with the best player in the world, a top-10 scorer in the NBA and enough role players to squeak through the decrepit Eastern Conference. Nobody thought this iteration would have a shot against the Warriors, anyway, even with Kyrie Irving.
Then game one removed all doubt. Not only did Kyrie Irving leave the game with what would later be diagnosed as a season-ending fractured left knee, but the Cavs failed to convert on two shots at the end of regulation to steal the game. They had nothing left in the tank and got boat-raced in overtime. The series was over; LeBron simply could not carry this group of misfit role players any further.
Frankly, there was no reason to believe otherwise. The Warriors came into the series with the 7th best point differential of all-time, beating opponents by an average of 10.1 points per game – over twice as large as that of Cleveland. The Warriors had lost only twice at Oracle Arena all season, and had not lost a game all season when allowing under 100 points. They have the MVP of the league, arguably the two best shooters in the league, a do-it-all defensive Swiss Army Knife who can guard all five positions, one of the best defensive centers in basketball, and a host of other valuable commodities. Take away LeBron and the Warriors probably have the four or five best players in this series (Curry, Thompson, Green, Barnes?, Bogut?). They’re a buzzsaw with championship talent, championship aspirations, and championship luck – their health gives them an even greater advantage. Without Kyrie, all signs pointed to this series being over quickly, maybe four or five games.
There’s only one problem: LeBron James is one of the best basketball players to ever step foot on this Earth.
Aside from some of the 80s Celtics (and James Jones), LeBron is the only player to ever play in five NBA finals in a row. He has the 6th most career postseason points, despite playing just the 19th most games. After receiving an abundance of flak for “taking his talents to South Beach,” and teaming up with two stars, LeBron has now carried three injured or incapable teams to the finals (2007, 2014, 2015) by himself.
This playoff run, though, we have seen a different LeBron emerge; he knows he’s their only chance. The usually uber-efficient superstar has now recognized that shooting 12/18 for 28 points is not going to cut it in this finals. Not when his teammates in crunch-time include two New York Knicks castoffs (yes, they exist), an Australian energy guy, and an energetic big man who just a year ago decided which hand to shoot with. If LeBron wins this title with this group against this team, he needs to be in consideration for the greatest player of all-time, but save that conversation for later.
He’s a freight train of a basketball player who now has a Jordan-esque mentality. Knowing the Cavs are not supposed to have a shot in this series, LeBron is willing his team toward a championship that has seemed – and still to some seems – impossible. They may not win this series, they may not even win another game, but what LeBron is doing right now is changing the entire complexion of his legacy.
No, he’s not Michael Jordan. He’s LeBron James and he may just win an NBA title by himself.