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CLEVELAND – LeBron James is pushing for lifetime immunity for his legacy in these NBA Finals, an unimpeachable freedom that’ll allow him to come and go the rest of his career. Only this time, no consequences. No repercussions. Winning changes everything, validates every superstar’s choices. He keeps coming and coming for these Golden State Warriors, threatening as peerless of a closing performance as ever witnessed in a championship series. Complete this colossal comeback, and LeBron James never has to say I’m sorry again.
Back-to-back historic performances in these two elimination games, including 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks on Thursday night in a 115-101 victory. Back to the Bay Area for an epic Game 7 on Sunday in which the pressure promises to be prodigious on Golden State.
LeBron James has been stunning, spinning a story for the ages.
“Unbelievable,” Kyrie Irving said.
“Unbelievable,” J.R. Smith said.
Between the third and fourth quarters, James told his coach that he wasn’t coming out of the game and told his teammates, “You all get stops and follow me.” Eighteen straight points, two lob-dunk passes to Tristan Thompson, a menacing block and side-mouth smart of Stephen Curry punctuated a pummeling of these Warriors. Curry flung his mouthpiece into a fan and left the court WWE-style, being escorted into the tunnel, his finger wagging back at James.
See you in Game 7.
See you Sunday.
All alone in this series, James has been able to manipulate a Draymond Green suspension, obliterate a 3-1 series deficit with historic Game 5 and 6 performances, and, yes, humiliate Mr. Curry into a temper tantrum and ejection that earned him a $25,000 fine, and Mrs. Curry into a Twitter meltdown.
One more victory, one more magnificent night at Oracle Arena, and James will get to run off with his buddies again somewhere warm. Miami. Los Angeles. Wherever. There’s a restlessness about James that craves the next big move, the next power play. Franchises are on watch again, believing nothing’s forever in Northeast Ohio. Sooner or later, there’s a belief that James comes into play again, a line of thinking that his inner circle has done nothing to dissuade. As for James himself, well, he has gone so far as to publicly describe an end-of-career scenario that doesn’t include Cleveland.
Part of it, yes, along with those one-year contracts, is a way to mess with owner Dan Gilbert. James has great fondness for coach Ty Lue and respect for general manager David Griffin, but he’ll never embrace Gilbert – only perform despite him.
Yes, James could come back to Cleveland and defend a potential Cavaliers title in 2017 and proceed to join the run of superstar pals in free agency: Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. They can wait one more year for Carmelo Anthony in 2018. Or, Golden State wins Game 7, and maybe James gives Cleveland the championship in 2017 – and makes his move then.
Cleveland can’t hold him to his Sports Illustrated letter, his promises of becoming something noble and lasting. It wanted a title, and he’s close to delivering one. James becomes untouchable with a Cavaliers title. Fifty-two years without a pro sports championship here, and Cleveland can only tell him: Thank you, and goodbye again.
“Not many people in the history of sports have said, ‘Everyone get on my back,’ ” Cleveland’s Richard Jefferson said. “The city, state, organization, team … ‘Get on my back. If we win or fail, I’ll take the blame – but I’m going to lead you.’ How many people have ever said that? I can’t think of too many players who have put that type of pressure on themselves and then have delivered more times than not. And he embraces it …
“That’s a pressure that I know I couldn’t personally handle.”
The Warriors are wobbly. Andrew Bogut is gone. Andre Iguodala’s hurting. Harrison Barnes is shattered. After these past two games, only a trophy tells Steph Curry that he’s still the NBA’s MVP. Privately, too, the Warriors were still grumbling on Thursday night over James’ complaints to the league that bought Green a Game 5 suspension. They were still seething over James on the way out of the Q, and know this: More than ever, they know he can take this historic Warriors season – the 73 victories, the unanimous MVP, the Oklahoma City comeback, the 3-1 Finals lead – and torch it all on Sunday night.
Without a championship, though, James can’t sell goodbye again. To come home and leave again without a parade will make him a villain. Win it, leave again and, well, LeBron James will be remembered as an adventurist. Here, they’ll have to live with it. No one else in basketball could’ve come to Cleveland and had a lousy lottery team within 48 minutes of a championship within two years. No one else, and now the hype starts for something spectacular on Sunday, a Game 7 for the ages, the LeBron James locomotive gathering momentum and threatening everything in its path.
These Finals could change everything for LeBron James, liberate him to honor his restless heart and pick up and leave again. Victory changes everything for a superstar, a third NBA title promising to be James’ ticket to immortality here – and a ticket to leave again without consequence, without guilt. One more game, one unprecedented comeback and no one can ever touch LeBron James again.