Not one, not two, not three, not four… How many championships does it take for LeBron James to reach immortality? Turns out, just one.
James never needed to make good on the ridiculously lofty expectations he brought upon himself when he rattled off numbers at the infamous Miami Heat welcome party in 2010. The only promise truly worth fulfilling was to his city when he returned four years later.
After pouring everything he had into keeping it, James has now reached a level of inscrutability that had so frustratingly eluded him throughout his all-time great career.
Though the stakes heading into Game 7 were at a level we’ve probably never seen before, it was important to keep perspective. Win or lose, LeBron James was one of the three best basketball players of all-time. Regardless of how he played, regardless of the result and regardless of what would happen in the coming years, nothing would change that.
Forty eight minutes later and the sentiment still holds true. What’s changed now is even the staunchest LeBron naysayers have no straws to grasp at. You want to say he’s not clutch? He led the first comeback from 3-1 down in the Finals, produced two 41-point epics in Game 5 and 6, dropped a triple-double on the grandest of stages in Game 7, and led the series in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
You want to say he’s never beaten the best? LeBron just destroyed the NBA’s equivalent of a perfect season by beating the 73-win, defending champion Golden State Warriors. This wasn’t a single elimination, one-off fluke. This was a seven-game series in which the most deserving team came out on top.
Finally, and most satisfyingly, no one can ever say again that LeBron can’t win for Cleveland. Imagine carrying the hopes of an entire city on your shoulders, as broad as they are. All these people have known for the past 52 years is heartbreak and they look at you as their saviour.
But what do you really owe them? Love is supposed to be unrelenting, but when James made the decision to leave for Miami in 2010, he was called a traitor, his jersey was burned, and everything he had previously done for the city wiped clean in the memory of those who had adored him so much.
There is no one, and I mean no one, who deserves LeBron less than Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Putting aside the predatory lending practices of his Quicken Loans, Gilbert was as bitter and vindictive as it gets when he penned his letter cursing LeBron when he left.
Six years later and Gilbert has his hands on the Larry O’Brien trophy with no one to thank more than James. But LeBron never came back for Gilbert, he came back for all the suffering fans who were in need of something to believe in.
To make your sole mission giving those millions of people the feeling they’ve so long yearned for and then deliver on that, is one of the most unselfish feats an athlete has ever accomplished. To see James’ face covered in tears after the final buzzer sounded was one of the most moving images I’ve ever experienced following sport.
It was a moment 13 years in the making and one that becomes more and more cathartic with each passing season of LeBron’s career. I won’t claim to know how it feels to be a Clevelander or a Cavaliers fan right now, but growing up in Boston and witnessing the Red Sox break their own storied curse gives me an idea.
Basketball is a team sport and LeBron didn’t do it alone. There wouldn’t be a championship parade tomorrow if it wasn’t for Kyrie Irving, whose contribution was stellar throughout. But the weight was all on James. He wasn’t just battling the Warriors, he was dealing with history, narrative and expectations.
LeBron defeated them all. There is nothing left to answer for.
It’s a comparison that’s been made repeatedly over the past six months or so – often to the chagrin of football fans- but increasingly it seems like Steph Curry might just well be the lone equivalent Leo Messi has right now.
The reasons for the irritation of those football fans were understandable: just over two years ago Curry wasn’t even in the discussion for the NBA MVP, while Messi has a decade of dominance under his belt. But with every heist and glimpse of genius the gap shortened, and the similarities began to appear more obvious.
And while Curry may not have been Messi in 2016, he certainly could relate to Messi at the turn of the decade. But as the Warriors first stumbled against OKC and then lost their chance at history books against the Cavs, the comparison began to fall – Messi would have never allowed this to happen (at least in a Barca shirt).
The comparisons were easy to make. Both had low key personalities that made the resemblance quite obvious but it wasn’t even as if the comparison was all that unfair, but it’s what happened over the last two years that really pushed his case.
After all, Messi was once an injury prone savant who was expected to be too small for an increasingly athletic game. As he came through the Barca youth teams football was moving further and further away from his sort of player – an small, frail, old school dribbler, who relied overwhelmingly on his technical expertise.
"There isn't any surgery in my future this summer... There's no excuses for what happened on the floor." Stephen Curry on his knee— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 20, 2016
The same could be said of Curry as he came out of college, with some even suggesting that he could not even survive in the big leagues with the frame that he had. But it’s the development of his Golden State Warriors team, and the antagonist they found in the last two rounds that made the comparisons more apt.
Of course the teams the duo ended up at show the difference between the two sports. The last two seasons aside the Warriors could never really be compared to Barcelona. Even in a sport that pushes towards parity they were a franchise which continued to find itself in the bottom half of the standings, nearly always devoid of even featuring in the playoffs.
Barca, meanwhile, in the free market rich-get-richer world of European football, are a handful of teams who’ve dominated the game over the past half century.
But over the last 24 months, led by Curry, the Warriors had become the basketball equivalent of the Catalans. Team assists – perhaps the easiest indicator of ball movement – is a stat they’ve topped for two years in a row, with their numbers in both the seasons being better than any put up by a team in this century.
In a sport dominated by 7-ft giants theirs is a team whose best lineup – the Death Lineup as it was referred to – was one with five undersized players (none with a listed height of over 6 ft 8), all capable of handling and shooting the ball.
Quite simply, they believed their technical brilliance would overshadow whatever physical limitations they had. In the end that wasn’t enough, but a championship followed by 73 wins will make history appreciate them more than the world does now.
The Warriors style derives from decades of development, a style built perfectly for the less physical modern NBA. Their inspirations include everything from Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix team to any number of Don Nelson led teams over the past few decades to even Lebron James’ Miami Heat sides which were credited with introducing position-less basketball (if their beat writers had any sense they’d have called it Total Basketball, but that’s just nitpicking).
Of course, until Miami and the Spurs no team had ever reached the mountaintop, and even with one title under their belt, the Warriors continued to be plagued by the orthodox notion that jump shooting teams didn’t win championships.
The Warriors, though, could draw inspiration from other sports – you could draw a comparison between every single one of their backdoor cuts which they used to great effect in the Finals to the overlaps Dani Alves and Jordi Alba master in. Or as Steph Curry said in March of this year: “Coach Kerr showed us films of some soccer greats, especially Messi. We watched how they play, the style and what they do every single game, how they score. He drew a lot of similarities to how we play, moving the ball, using each other.”
Much like the first couple of years of Pep’s Barca the only worthy opponents the Warriors have had over the past two years have been history and the record books. Or that was the case until about a fortnight ago when they ran first into the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Cavs.
The other two were nothing like Warriors. They were teams that was supposed to dominate this era, a collection of superstars like no other – one was a team that could claim to have two of the best five players in the league, the other three of the best fifteen. And as OKC first took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Finals matchup another comparison started to bear shape.
The Thunder and the Cavs were loaded with talent (multiple top-5 draft picks compared to GSW’s only one being a past-it Andrew Bogut), but still relied on individual brilliance, speed and pure athleticism.
Whereas the Warriors were a finely tuned aesthetic machine, the Thunder were all fire and brimstone; ball movement on one side, ball hogging on the other. And yet the reason they were dominating the Warriors had very little to do with their offence. The way they neutralized Golden State was by being too fast, too long and too big.
The Thunder, it turns out, were Mourinho’s Madrid. Their game, particularly the fast breaks, are breathtaking in their own way, but somehow feel like something from a bygone era when compared to the Warriors’ tiki taka. And for all their offensive numbers, it was their mastery on defence that separated them from others.
Eventually the Cavs, never a great defensive team, were to follow suit, including targeting Draymond Green (like OKC did) in a way that would make Mourinho proud. And with Lebron there, they were able to go one step better.
And that was the real difference, peak Messi has never had to be in a match where he wasn’t the best player on the pitch. Messi has never had a Lebron – Messi is Lebron. In the end the comparison fell because unlike football, in basketball one man can dominate the best team.
Earlier, as OKC took a 3-1 lead it seemed as if it was then time to bury the original comparison too – because, after all, whenever Messi was called upon in a Clasico, he responded.
Curry, by comparison, seemed overawed by Westbrook and the OKC Octopus for the majority of the series. Yet somehow (mainly through Klay Thompson turning into a fireball) they managed to come back and force a Game 7. That was where destiny was to be written, and comparisons were to be made or forgotten.
Curry responded by waltzing his way to 36 and back to back finals, even the hardiest soul could admit, he just might be Messi. But then the Cavs went on a similar run to destroy all notions of the Warriors’ invincibility, the Warriors were too banged up to respond again.
For the Warriors, their dreams of invincibility died but history will remember a 73-win team more fondly than it does right now. But the comparisons may never be made again, Lebron made sure of that.
What a tense, down-to-the-wire finish in a Game 7 that lived up to everything basketball fans were hoping for.
LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers did the unthinkable by becoming the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals, defeat the 73-win defending champion Golden State Warriors and bring home Cleveland’s first title in any sport for 52 years.
When the buzzer sounded, James immediately burst into tears and poured out his emotions. This is why he returned home, to bring the championship to northeast Ohio and life up to the people of Cleveland who had suffered sporting heartbreak after heartbreak.
You could feel the weight of the city on his shoulders throughout the series and when James collapsed to the floor after finally accomplishing his mission, you couldn’t help but feel he deserved to win.
On the court, James didn’t deliver a third straight 41-point performance, but he was at his typical all-around best to record a triple double with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. After seeing Stephen Curry become the first regular season unanimous MVP in NBA history and come for his ‘best player in the game’ title, James claimed the hardware that matters most: his third Finals MVP to go with the Larry O’Brien trophy.
It wasn’t just LeBron who outplayed Curry in the series though. Kyrie Irving was phenomenal and again gave James the help he needed by scoring 26 points, including what will go down as one of the biggest shots of all-time on his 3-pointer to put Cleveland ahead for good with less than a minute remaining. Irving went isolation against Curry and fired away a courageous step-back jumper that encapsulated what a tough-shot maker the Cavaliers point guard is.
After that play, the Warriors had their chance as their MVP had the ball in his hands with a sub-par defender in Kevin Love switching onto him following a screen. Curry looked determined to get off a 3-pointer instead of going past Love to potentially cut the deficit to one.
However, credit has to go to the Cleveland big man. After being criticised heavily all series and especially for his defence, Love stepped up when it mattered and made a key play.
Golden State’s offence, which was so deadly throughout this season, went scoreless in the final 4:39 of the game and couldn’t get a bucket in the war of attrition. Game 7s are usually not the most aesthetically-pleasing contests and in the final stretch when nothing came easy, Cleveland just did slightly more.
For the Warriors, it’s a disappointing finish to what could have been a storybook ending to cap arguably the greatest season in NBA history. The 73 wins will forever be in the history books, but they’ll ring hollow in many ways because the ultimate job wasn’t completed.
Golden State somehow ended up losing as many games in the playoffs as they did in the regular season: nine. They had three opportunities to close the series out and repeat as champions, but fell inches short.
Going into Game 7, the consensus was these 48 minutes would be some of the most important in NBA history. With everything that was at stake, the drama couldn’t have been higher and the season couldn’t have ended in a more compelling way.