Whatever happens from here, for better or worse, will put LeBron in a different light.
TORONTO — LeBron James had been masterful and dominant, his game setting a tone for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that had just made the NBA Finals. Again. As the Toronto Raptors stood, dejected, on their own home floor, the Cavs let the joy wash over them. Their leader first and foremost among them, getting choked up as it hit him.
And lead them he had. From the first moment, LeBron had played like a man possessed — an all-time great, in all his nuances and flaws and awesomeness, chasing a sixth consecutive Finals appearance, and seventh overall. That is astounding. And this one, given all he’s done and all he hasn’t, given his burning and real desire to bring that championship to Cleveland, and given his current 2-4 record in the NBA Finals, could be by far his most poetic and important.
His 33 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and overall mastery of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals were mere signposts pointing, again, to LeBron the savior or LeBron minus another ring. That 113-87 dismantling of the Raptors will not be remembered, not really. His game was great. But those games still to come are all that really matter — all that will define an entire season, and much of a sparkling career.
This is the moment, and you could feel it at the Air Canada Centre. Thunder or Warriors, it doesn’t matter. The test begins now.
Is LeBron James the superstar who brought his greatness to Cleveland’s dysfunction and in merely two years molded them into champions? Or is he the superstar who can’t win in the Finals without Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade, the guy so many will happily label as a star who fails more than he succeeds in the biggest moments?
What must go on in the mind of one of world’s greatest and certainly most scrutinized athletes in these moments between celebration and the certainty that if he cannot forge four more wins a different kind of judgment will descend? Pressure? Joy? Resolve? Fear? Excitement? A moment of perspective? Some blend of them all?
On one side of these NBA playoffs, we have Steph Curry and the Warriors trying to prove their unanimous MVP and 73 wins, respectively, weren’t hollow happenings history won’t remember.
That’s a level of scrutiny, in the face of real greatness, that LeBron James understands better than anyone. Because it’s the kind of scrutiny that comes with those who ascend to the rarefied air he has breathed since he was called The Chosen One.
Maybe that’s why, after the revelry and hugs and party had moved to the Cavaliers locker room, he sat at his locker, alone. Or as alone as LeBron James will ever be allowed to be in the company of others.
His clothes hanging above him, wrapped in a towel, icepacks on each knee, he occasionally lifted the chocolate milk in his right hand and took sips. But his eyes, the whole time, were locked on some internal thought, some private moment. Despite the quiet congratulations that came his way — hugs, hellos, kind words as individuals peeled off from the party and media throngs around him — he was somewhere else.
LeBron closed his eyes and exhaled, deeply, twice. Water — there was no champagne this time around — covered the floor. Over the music and the murmurs of the reporters pushing around his teammates, a “HELL YEAH!” and laughter came from the shower. Still, LeBron sat. His eyes opened, still with that faraway look.
There he was, one step closer to bringing a championship to Northeast Ohio. One step closer to the impossible standards we have placed on him, and certainly the impossible standards he has placed on himself. One step closer to, whether in confetti or criticism, the quiet ends and the noise surrounding him again.
It was interesting, watching LeBron take that moment. He is, needless to say, a basketball player of the highest magnitude. What he does on the floor, his defense and grace and power and passing and how it can unfold and dominate is a thing of basketball beauty. He’s also an equally interesting and nuanced person. He engenders hate, love, hope, respect — all on such high levels. And these things clearly effect him, for good and bad, and drive him, to both failure and unbelievable successes.
He stood up.
“Ahhhhhh,” he said to himself. “S–.” Not angry. Not frustrated. Just a guy waking from a reverie.
People noticed him stand, and, as always happens when the world notices LeBron, they moved closer.
“Excuse me,” he said, and the crowd parted.
Later, in the same clothes that had hung above him as he’d pondered whatever it is LeBron James ponders in such moments, he addressed the media.
There were the standard cliches, the straightforward answers, the nudges to ask Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — to his left and right, and each having put up big second halves — more questions.
What goes on in LeBron’s head? How did this moment feel?
“There’s definitely a different feeling,” he said. “I didn’t appreciate it last year fully. There was so much going on in my mind. I didn’t appreciate it.”
Seven times now, LeBron James has sat on a podium and discussed an upcoming NBA Finals. Seven times, he’s talked about trying to chase down a championship. He’s been here before, but not really — not like this.
Windows close. Men grow old. The dreams of youth — in this case, winning a championship for Cleveland — can prove much more tricky than you’d understood once you get to older age. New, unexpected threats, and MVPs, arise. And the world judges. That, too, is the burden of expectations.
Beat the Thunder or Warriors, and LeBron’s a hero. Fail, and he’ll be something else entirely.
The real meaning of Game 6 in Toronto Friday night wasn’t the win. It’s the magnitude of what comes next — and how clearly it hangs on the one person who can make it happen for Cleveland.
What goes on in LeBron James mind? How does he handle all of this?
That, more than anything, will dictate what happens next.
LeBron is headed to his seventh NBA Finals.