Since his celebrated entrance into the NBA in 2003 directly out of high school, LeBron James has dismissed a plethora of critics and haters to become arguably the greatest all-around player in the history of the game.
Time after time, the 33-year-old wonder has delivered remarkable performances in the face of extreme pressure and unreasonable expectations. His latest feat, carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers to another Eastern Conference championship by defeating the Boston Celtics 87-79 on the road Sunday night in Game 7, might be James’ most astounding.
The basketball savant found a way to lift the conference’s No. 4 seed to its fourth straight NBA Finals with an undependable supporting cast that would be a high lottery team without him. In the series-deciding game versus the Celtics, James recorded 35 points with 15 rebounds and nine assists. And for good measure, he didn’t leave the floor during live action, playing all 48 minutes, the only player on either team to go the distance.
“It was asked of me tonight to play the whole game, and I just tried to figure out how I could get through it,” James said afterward. “Throughout timeouts, I was able to catch my breath. At halftime, I didn’t come out and warm up. That was my time to recalibrate and catch my wind again.”
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens admitted his team’s strategy of wearing down James was one that fell short of its objective. “Our goal going into the series was to make him exert as much energy as humanly possible and try to be as good as we can on everybody else,” he said. “For the most part, I thought we were pretty good at that ... but he still scored 35. It’s a joke.”
Now James is charged with executing another miracle against the Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors, who knocked off the Houston Rockets 4-3 in their best of seven series.
If there are no further significant injuries to the Warriors—starting forward Andre Iguodala missed Games 5, 6 and 7 versus the Rockets with an injured left knee—it is highly improbable the Cavaliers, even with James playing at a level few have ever attained, can engineer an upset. Las Vegas odds makers have installed the Warriors as the highest favorite in the past 16 NBA Finals.
This year, James, who’ll be playing in an extraordinary eighth consecutive Finals, won’t have Kyrie Irving as a running mate to provide critical offensive output when he is catching his second wind. J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, et al. aren’t equipped to manufacture the necessary production over the course of a potential seven games to seriously threaten the potent Warriors.
The core of All-Stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be too much for James to overcome. But another Finals loss to the Warriors should not cloud or diminish the greatness he has already displayed in willing his team this far.