LeBron James needed to make basketball magic to win the NBA Finals.
He needed to beat the Golden State Warriors, who are easily the best shooting team of all time in a sport that depends a whole lot on shooting. Oh, and they’re also elite defensively. This season, they sped by opponents, shot over them and powered through them.
The Warriors broke Michael Jordan’s supposedly unbreakable regular season wins record. They smashed their own records for three-point success. They beat teams without Stephen Curry and they trounced teams with him. Even when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder backed them into a 3-1 hole, the Dubs found a bunch of silver bullets and perfectly launched them from about 27 feet into the hoop. They seemed unkillable, and LeBron had to kill them.
LeBron needed to beat them with a team that, quite frankly, was outmatched. The Warriors’ strength was not just Curry, the league’s unanimous MVP, and his Splash Brother Klay Thompson. Their strength was their depth. Although Kyrie Irving is an undeniably great scorer and showed it in the latter half of this series, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strength was … LeBron.
LeBron needed to win three straight games in the NBA Finals after falling into a 3-1 deficit. Nobody had ever done this before.
LeBron needed to beat the Warriors in three straight games. They didn’t lose two games in a row all regular season.
LeBron needed to beat Golden State twice in Oracle Arena. They went 39-2 there in the regular season and lost just once to date in the playoffs.
LeBron needed to win a Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road. The last time a team did this, it was the Washington Bullets on the road against the Seattle SuperSonics. There is not an NBA team with either of those names now.
LeBron needed to win an NBA Finals as a player on a sports team from Cleveland. CLEVELAND, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY. CLEVELAND. We had 60 years of evidence that this city was a sports sinkhole. The cosmic force field surrounding Northeast Ohio made sports hopes disappear like planes in the Bermuda Triangle. LeBron was born near this place, he learned how cursed it was and was smart enough to leave. And then, like an idiot in a horror movie who runs back into the haunted house and bravely gets murdered, HE RETURNED. He chose to go back to this place where winning was impossible, and he won.
James found himself at the foot of this mountain of impossibilities. The worst narrative of James’ career says that this is when he would’ve quit. He’s been called not clutch, with his critics seizing on moments when he missed shots or passed in critical moments. He’s been called a frontrunner who leaves when things get bad. He’s been called a baby, including by players on the Warriors in the middle of this series.
But instead of running, he climbed that mountain.
The not-clutch guy just averaged 29 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for a seven-game Finals against the winningest team in NBA history. He had a 27-point triple-double in the decisive game, including a monstrous chase-down block with two minutes to go and a game-sealing free throw after injuring his arm.
The frontrunner left glamorous South Beach for rusty Northeast Ohio and won a ring on a team with a much weaker supporting cast than any of his Miami teams.
The baby cried, sure … but only after winning the NBA championship. You’re allowed to do that, I think.
James led all players in the Finals in points. He led all players in the Finals in assists. He led all players in the Finals in rebounds. He led all players in the Finals in blocks. He led all players in the Finals in steals. He’s the first player ever to lead a series in all five categories, and he did it in the Finals against a team that was possibly the best of all time. Curry might have won the league’s unanimous MVP, but James was an all-encompassing basketball behemoth in this series.
James was a steamrolling scorer, a bowling ball with a three-foot vertical leap. He was a magnificent passer, executing absurd passes most players wouldn’t even see. And in spite of all of his amazing offensive talent, his best plays might be on defense. He chases down shots from nowhere, swatting transition baskets their shooters assumed were easy lay-ins. (By the closing minutes of Game 7, Curry started passing when he saw James coming.) And he’s a fearsome on-ball defender, brick-walling Thompson when the game’s final possession was drawn up for him.
James is easily one of the best basketball players of all time. He’s been the best player in the NBA for large parts of the last decade, and this series shows that he still is the best. He won three NBA championships with two teams, and he’s the most important player in the history of both franchises. He’s made the NBA Finals more consecutive times than anybody since there were only nine teams in the NBA.
Yet this series is the most impressive thing he’s ever done. James could’ve lost this series, and in the shadow of Golden State’s historically unmatched brilliance, it would’ve been understandable. But he managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
Sunday night will not be the end of LeBron James criticism. Some people apparently only respect perfection, and James is not perfect. His jumper is a bit iffy and sometimes downright broken. He does lose basketball games. He is only a brilliant human, and not an immortal god.
But Sunday night should be the end of any rationally thinking human accepting LeBron James criticism. If what LeBron James just did is not good enough for you, something is wrong with you, and not LeBron James.
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LeBron James gets emotional in postgame interview