With legacy forged, LeBron James faces one of the biggest challenges of his career

CLEVELAND – There’s little LeBron James can do on the court to tarnish his legacy. He’s a three-time champion and eight-time NBA finalist, and at 33, he is having arguably his most impactful season. The Michael Jordan loyalists will howl that MJ never lost in a Finals, but let’s see Jordan beat the 2007 Spurs with the team LeBron had around him.

Lose to Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday, and James’ legacy shouldn’t take a hit. Win? The greatest of all time argument gets a little more interesting.

Let’s establish a baseline here: The 2018 Cavaliers are the weakest James-led team this decade. There is no second perimeter star (a la Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade), and the defense all season was abysmal. Kevin Love — when he’s not battling foul trouble — is reliable. Everyone else? Well, Forrest, you never know what you are going to get.

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This series has provided a five-game sampling of that. J.R. Smith hasn’t cracked 40 percent shooting in any game. Kyle Korver, 37, has been a big factor in Cleveland’s wins (14 points per game, 75 percent shooting), but largely a non-factor (7.6 points, 40 percent shooting) in losses. George Hill has similar win/loss splits.

Some of that is Boston’s defense. The Celtics have several high-level defenders and a switch-happy scheme they execute flawlessly. James often finds himself with mismatches, but that’s exactly where Boston wants him. A 40-point game from James is bad; a 40-point game coupled with a few teammates going for 15-plus is worse.

LeBron James needs to take it to another level to carry his Cavs to the NBA Finals. (AP)
LeBron James needs to take it to another level to carry his Cavs to the NBA Finals. (AP)

“That’s part of the poison,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Because there’s such great 3-point shooters around, and if you get running around too much or unorganized, that’s when they just spray those threes on you, and then you have no chance. It’s a fine line. It’s a balance.”

Some of that inconsistency, though, is Cleveland, and the open shots it misses and the sloppiness it has been prone to. All of this is to say that as LeBron enters his second elimination game this postseason, his task has never been taller. And if he succeeds, if the Cavs can rally to win this series, it will stand as one of his most impressive achievements.

This isn’t “LeBron fawning,” by the way, though the constant critiques of James border on bizarre. Take Game 5. The cameras caught James looking tired. Why? Because he was. This has been one of the most grueling seasons of James’ career. He played all 82 games, led the NBA in minutes in the regular season and is averaging 40.6 minutes per game in the playoffs. He couldn’t take a break, because if he did, the fourth-seeded Cavs might have slipped to fifth or sixth. He can’t take possessions off in this series, because for much of it he’s chasing 21-year-old Jaylen Brown all over the floor.

James doesn’t use fatigue as an excuse. On Wednesday, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was asked if James looked tired. Lue said he did. Later, James was told about Lue’s comments. “I had my moments,” James said. A few questions later, a reporter phrased a question by saying James “mentioned the fatigue thing earlier.” James quickly corrected him, saying another reporter brought it up.

“I’m fine,” James said.

The point: James isn’t blaming his workload (which he could), he isn’t pinning Cleveland’s problems on his teammates (ditto), and he isn’t leveling criticisms at Lue, whose admission that he was flummoxed by Boston’s decision not to play Semi Ojeleye in Game 5 — which altered how Lue used Korver — stands as one of the weirder moments of this series.

He’s just playing, and he’ll have to play two of the best games of his career to beat back a Boston team that believes it belongs. If he does, this series won’t just rank as an accomplishment for James — it will be one of his best.

Putting aside his championship series wins — and James was the Finals MVP in each one of them — what is his next most significant accomplishment? Is it getting the 2007 Cavs to the Finals? Battling through early-season adversity to get the 2011 Heat there? Would beating Indiana, blowing through Toronto and outlasting Boston be more impressive?

In the GOAT debate, most are entrenched with their opinions. To the Jordan advocates, James will always be a five-Finals-loss mercenary who needed to seek out second and third stars to get over the hump — twice. But even they would have to appreciate this. Down 3-2 with a supporting cast that has been shaky, James will have to summon two of the best games of his career to keep his season going.

“I know how I prepare myself,” James said. “I know how I prepare going into each and every game, no matter if it’s elimination or 0-0, whatever the case may be in a playoff game. So I can speak for myself and know what my mindset will be on just trying to help us do every facet of the game, to try to extend the series. We’ll see what happens.”

James has faced challenges before. This is one of his biggest.

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