OAKLAND, Calif. – The horn sounded, the benches emptied and in that moment the weight of a city lifted off LeBron James’ squared shoulders. Two years ago, James returned to Cleveland, older, wiser and a better player than when he left. He vowed to bring a championship to Northeast Ohio, to fulfill empty promises he made as an immature 20-something struggling to bring his talent and maturity into alignment. Two years later, he did it.
That’s right: He did it.
Basketball isn’t supposed to work like this. It’s a team game. One man can’t carry a team to a title. It’s not like other sports. A great pitcher can win one in baseball. An elite quarterback can close any gap in the NFL. A hot goaltender can – and has – led an eight seed to a Stanley Cup. The NBA? Those one-man bands have a ceiling. Allen Iverson’s 2001 Sixers were dismantled in the Finals; Dwight Howard’s 2009 Magic took a similar beating. There is only so much even a transcendent player can do before a better team stops him.
The Cavaliers are NBA champions, winners of a hard- fought, 93-89 Game 7 on Sunday, and James is the reason why. This isn’t meant to diminish the play of Kyrie Irving, who was magnificent in Game, 5, solid in Game 6 and knocked down the three-point dagger late in regulation of Game 7 that put Cleveland on top. Nor is it a slight to Tristan Thompson, one of the best offensive rebounders of this generation.
But this is about James, the best player of this generation and – are we ready to have this debate? – perhaps the greatest player of all time. Down 3-1, facing odds no team has beaten, forced to defeat a record-setting team three straight times – twice in a building in which it almost never lost – and James did what? Two 41-point performances were followed by a final act of brilliance, a 27-point, 11-assist, 11-rebound tour de force that rivaled any of the great efforts in Finals history.
And look at who he did it against? Few teams – perhaps only San Antonio, with the sticky-handed Kawhi Leonard – are as equipped to deal with James as Golden State. The Warriors have waves of elite defenders. James mowed through them all. He powered past the bigger and shot over the smaller. He didn’t get rattled by Golden State’s physicality, didn’t lose focus during droughts. Facing insurmountable odds, James played the only way he could: one possession at a time.
“He's such a force physically, so powerful,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought he brought more force to the last three games than he did the first four. But he's one of the great players of all time.”
On both ends. “Highly upset” was how James said he felt Saturday about never winning a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and that foreshadowed a spectacular defensive night. Irving’s three gave Cleveland a lead in the closing minute, but it was James hunting down Andre Iguodala in transition a few plays earlier, swatting away what would have been a go-ahead bucket that gave Cleveland the opportunity to seize the lead back.
This is the stuff legends are made of, folks, and it’s time we ask: Is James the best we have ever seen? He will forever be compared to Michael Jordan, will be clubbed by MJ’s perfect Finals record and shrugged at by aging players with a warped perception of just how good their day was. But this is six straight Finals for James, with three championships to show for it. He won in Miami, now in Cleveland, and there is a reasonable argument that he has been the best player in every series he suited up in.
This, though, this was James’ greatest accomplishment. Think about how outmatched Cleveland was. Kevin Love struggled, J.R. Smith was off and oftentimes James found himself flanked by Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert, trying to turn back the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history. Down 3-1 and the Cavaliers were a pincushion, declared dead by cable-television pundits, scorched by anonymous eggs spewing insults 140 characters at a time.
Think about Cleveland’s season. Early struggles, a midseason coaching change and it was James who pushed the team through it. His bond with Love solidified late in the year, friends say, and it was James who was needed to incorporate new parts, to adjust to tweaks coach Tyronn Lue made on the fly. “I’m very blessed that I get to be a part of that, a part of his greatness and journey,” Irving said. “Learning from a guy like that is amazing.”
Sitting behind a dais, his two sons flanking him, his daughter in his arms, James was as he had been all series: calm, reflective, keenly aware of what had just been accomplished. “I told my guys before the game: Listen, there is a game to be played, but there's not many guys, there's not many teams that get an opportunity to be in the NBA Finals in a Game 7,” James said. “There's just not. And this is my second one, and I'm able to say that I've been victorious twice in Game 7. I just told the guys: Don't take this for granted. Don't take it for granted.”
Soon after James was gone, rejoining Jefferson, who stormed the bowels of Oracle Arena double-fisting Champagne bottles, hugging Channing Frye, who emerged from the Cavaliers’ locker room shirtless and goggled, a thin layer of Champagne coating his skin. A flight on Monday, a parade on Wednesday, a 52-year title drought to be buried under the biggest party Northeast Ohio has ever seen.
Let the debate rage, the pro-Jordan, the pro-Larry Bird, the pro-Magic Johnson factions have at it. Arguments for each have merit. But the most talented player of this generation has just added another trophy to his shelf, the most physically imposing forward in NBA history has just overpowered the team that once seemed destined to be considered the best of it. Any list of all-time greats has James on it; soon, even his fiercest critics will have no choice but to put him at the top of it.