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LeBron James has defied history by carrying Cleveland Cavaliers to NBA title

NBA superstar has been doubted for incorrect reasons and bad reasons, and it has remarkably never much dragged him down, writes Jonathan Raymond after the Cavaliers come back to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
LeBron James dominated the NBA Finals in such a manner that he led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Monica M Davey / EPA
LeBron James dominated the NBA Finals in such a manner that he led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Monica M Davey / EPA

Dare you doubt LeBron?

Many of us have. Many of us did, this series. When his Cleveland Cavaliers were down 2-0. Again when they were down 3-1, a deficit which had never been overturned.

Not him, or his talent, or his greatness. Those are not, nor have they ever been, legitimately in question. But that he could do this? This?

That he could write the most implausibly perfect climax to the most implausibly perfect redemption story basketball has ever produced?

That he could go home to Cleveland, a place where he had become reviled after he left for the Miami Heat in 2010, a city that collectively had not won a major sports championship in half a century, and purge all those demons?

That he could take this flawed, incomplete-seeming Cavaliers team on his back into the NBA Finals against the Warriors? The greatest regular season team in history? The defending champions, who beat Cleveland last year?

That, again, he could pull his team out of a 3-1 hole from which no other team had previously escaped?

Yes, that was doubted. But LeBron has been doubted for many incorrect reasons and many bad reasons in his career, and it has remarkably never much dragged him down.

It did not this time.

On the court, the numbers are simply silly – LeBron led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Consider that again. Chew on it. Appreciate it fully. James led both teams in everything.

He would have been the rightful Finals MVP even had Cleveland lost.

They did not, because LeBron was so all-encompassingly great, so indomitable. His defensive influence was unmistakable (see: that block). His offensive authority was unshakeable.

Cleveland won by attacking the middle of the floor and hitting just enough from outside to keep Golden State uncertain defensively. LeBron orchestrated in Game 7 some successful drive-and-kick possessions. Other times he drained long shots or watched Kyrie Irving do it, as on the final-minute dagger. He opened up the floor, warped the shape of the game around his own gravitational force.

He did it as he had the previous two games. The Cavaliers won the points in the paint by 12 and 16 in Games 6 and 5, respectively. They outscored the Warriors inside by 20, 48-28, in Game 7. LeBron was responsible for 14 of those points, and he assisted on seven more made shots inside. He earned 10 foul shots for his interior efforts (making eight). James singularly controlled the key.

Attack the rim. Own the middle. It’s been a tried-and-true basketball strategy for decades. Historically, that had involved a generationally-talented big man like Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O’Neal dominating with physical force and impossible combinations of size and skill.

The Cavaliers won this NBA championship because LeBron, himself a generational talent, one of the top five best players at least of all-time, an impossible combination of size and skill and speed and strength, owned that space and commanded play around it in a way that was rarely stoppable.

That he is also an historically great defender, and an historically great basketball visionary, a passer who sees the floor like few others ever have and conducts his orchestra accordingly, and able to work outside capably, made the task of controlling him all the more difficult. And, ultimately, unachievable.

The Warriors, they live and die by the three. They had mostly lived so very large with it. They shot 36.6 per cent from distance in Game 7, which is not so bad. But not so bad is not good enough in the Finals, nor is it sufficient when your standard from three is “historically great”.

The cause for Golden State’s collapse is a puzzling thing to piece together. They stopped moving the ball as fluidly or shooting as confidently weeks ago. The unexpected vulnerabilities they showed against the Oklahoma City Thunder – that they could be bothered from three, that their passing flow could be interrupted, that the most ridiculously fine-tuned rhythm-scoring offence in basketball could indeed be knocked out of its rhythm – were all in play in falling to Cleveland.

Stephen Curry was a shell of himself all series. It would not be surprising to learn in time that he was battling some sort of physical issue the Warriors never disclosed.

It would explain, in part, how his confidence abandoned him. His dribbling, so electric, became jarringly reserved. He was reluctant throughout the series to take the ball and create.

Watching Golden State’s beautiful offence devolve into Curry handing off to Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green to run the attack and rob it of its dynamism was one of the more perplexing things about these Finals. Curry, scurrying around off-ball looking for openings that were only usually ever there for the Warriors in the first place because he created them with his ball-handling and his probing. It was a paradoxical failing on his part.

But it was not just the MVP who faltered. Klay Thompson’s shot largely abandoned him, too. If the Splash Brothers had not been so muted as this series reached its finale, if the audacious devil-may-care shots that once went in still did, things might have been very different.

And even still, they almost crawled over the line with a second straight title to show for it. Green did his part, and though his cannot compare in any way to the heroism of James, he very clearly was Golden State’s Finals MVP.

But that sort of is the key takeaway, is it not? LeBron’s heroism was incomparable.

ESPN announcer Mike Breen asked during the post-game celebration, “Has there ever been a player more valuable to his team than James has been to Cleveland the last two years?”

Though that’s probably a legitimate question, he meant it rhetorically, and with good reason: It’s hard to make a case at the moment for anyone else.

LeBron reached the promised land he could not quite push his team to last year. It turns out he needed just a little bit of extra help, in the form of the excellent Irving, just a proper sidekick to aid his superhero efforts.

“I gave everything I had. I put my heart, my blood, my sweat, my tears into this game,” he said.

“Against all odds, against all odds,” he added.

Yes, even the odds doubted LeBron. He defied them, he defied many of us, he defied history.

Lebron James put a crown jewel in his legacy as one of the two or three or four best to ever play this game. A legacy that still may go down as the game’s greatest.

More immediately, and more importantly, he gave Cleveland a title. The Cavaliers, LeBron’s Cavaliers, are defiant champions.


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Updated: June 20, 2016 04:00 AM

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