CLEVELAND – They're wandering the corridors of Quicken Loans Arena in a state of bewilderment, the ownership partners and front-office executives of these Cleveland Cavaliers trying to process the magnitude of this moment. Halfway home in these NBA Finals, and LeBron James has transcended everything again. Halfway home and momentum has gathered for the most improbable championship in NBA history.
"Two more," part-owner Nate Forbes told a friend outside the Cavaliers locker room.
"Two more," he said, shaking his head.
The Cavaliers had done it again, a 96-91 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of these Finals. Out of nowhere, the Cavaliers hold a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, because LeBron James has disappeared into a parallel universe. This time, it was 40 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and two blocks. This time, it was a blend of blunt-force trauma and the highest level of thinking that thrust these Warriors into a deeper, darker dimension.
The losses of Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving haven't paralyzed these Cavaliers, but emboldened them to become something they hadn't been this season: an elite, engaged and enveloping defensive juggernaut.
"At this level, at this stage, it's pretty remarkable what we've become," Cavaliers coach David Blatt told Yahoo Sports late Tuesday outside his office. "Here's the thing: We didn't suffer one blow, or two blows. … We've been taking haymakers for a long time now.
"And we just keep standing."
The Cavaliers traded away draft picks to unload salaries over the summer, clearing salary-cap space without so much as a promise that James would choose this return engagement. Privately, front-office executives wondered: If James doesn't come back – and we made these moves for nothing – will we be laughed out of our jobs? Out of the league?
The Cavaliers gambled everything and waited on James to leave Miami. Over two years ago, owner Dan Gilbert started to wonder to people: If James wants to return, we have to bring him back, right? People told him, yes, of course, but the question was rhetorical. He knew the answer, they all did. The owner, the GM, the coach – it didn't matter: LeBron James didn't return for them. He wanted control of a franchise, wanted control of his story, and, yes, he wanted to come home again.
From almost the time that James had signed with the Miami Heat in 2010, his inner circle spoke of rewriting the Cleveland story. That was the mantra within James' circle. They had to fix it. James would've gotten the glory had the Cavaliers won a title without Irving and Love, but this has become something none of them ever imagined. This possible championship will hold the deepest significance in history. Michael Jordan never won a title this way, nor Bill Russell, nor Magic Johnson, nor Kobe Bryant.
No one's ever raised a banner with such a pedestrian supporting cast; no one's come so close to a title with so little surrounding him. For James, this incarnation of the Cavaliers only grows his mythology. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA, flush with talent, and James has dictated terms on them. He has transformed himself from Magic to Michael in these Finals, the shots coming faster and faster, reaching into the high 30s. He has no choice and no need to apologize.
"This is a totally different challenge," James said. "I've never been where two All-Stars were out. It's outside the box, but not too far.
"It's not too far for me to grab."
LeBron James gets closer and closer now, a Game 4 that could give these Cavaliers complete control of these Finals. This was forever the idea about his return to Cleveland, but no one saw it coming so fast, so indomitably in these Finals. James isn't so much a power forward, but a force of nature – and he's beating Golden State in every way he chooses.
James isn't playing his most efficient NBA Finals basketball, but he's managing the clock and pace to control the game. James is walking the ball down the floor, backing down defenders, and slowly, surely draining clock. His shot misses are often rebounded by his own frontcourt, the ball's kicked out and Cleveland starts again. This way, the Cavs are always back to protect themselves in transition defense.
It is the greatest basketball story told, and James' starring role could be the perfect punctuation to a wild season. All around LeBron James, they walked the corridors of Quicken Loans Arena late Tuesday in a state of sheer amazement. This shouldn't be happening – this couldn't be happening – but here the Cavaliers are now, two victories away from the NBA championship. Here are LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in these Finals, halfway home.
These Warriors promise to be a tough out, but Blatt would say it in a private moment in the corridor: These Cavaliers have taken the blows – Anderson Varejao and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving – and yet LeBron James keeps coming in a way that perhaps no one has ever witnessed in the playoffs. Cleveland has taken its hits and now it's creeping closer to the cusp of a most improbable title. Two victories away, halfway home in these NBA Finals. Halfway home.