LeBron James has nothing left to prove.
In fact, he hasn’t had to do anything else to qualify as the greatest player of the post-Jordan era since he led his short-handed and hobbled Cleveland Cavaliers to the finals, trouncing Eastern Conference opponents one after another. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out for the finals, there was no reason to think after an overtime Game 1 loss that LeBron could somehow pull off one of the biggest upsets of all time, featuring a supporting cast that was equal parts D-League and former New York Knicks.
And then Game 2 happened.
The Cavs once again battled the Warriors into overtime, this time with LeBron putting up his first triple-double of the series. LeBron wasn’t playing perfect basketball, but he was driven. He was hitting the shots when it mattered. And the Cavs were following his lead and simply outplaying the Warriors, who were virtually untouchable during the regular season on their home court. The Cavaliers won Game 2. Astonishingly, and thanks to another LeBron triple-double (as well as a Matthew Delladova circus shot), they won Game 3 in Cleveland.
The fact that the Cavaliers are now looking at elimination this evening shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re outmatched, and even with the long break before the finals, they’re completely winded. J.R. Smith hasn’t been able to provide a true second offensive option to LeBron, so the Cavs have simply become a team that features two plays — LeBron is on the court and LeBron is on the bench. A winning strategy this is not, but this isn’t a strategy. This is a test of how far one single player can push a team to greatness. And the fact that we’re even here is a testament to LeBron’s unique abilities.
Last summer, when he announced he was returning to Cleveland, LeBron wrote the following:
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach.
Except it wasn’t a long process — one could chalk that up to the weakness of their conference, or just how effective the Cavs were with their personnel moves. Still, the fact that they’re just two games from a championship is still remarkable. Without Love and Irving, what amounts to a historically excellent team could have easily swept the Cavs. No one will be resting easy tonight in Cleveland if the Cavs falter on their home court, but not a single person will say it’s a disappointment or that LeBron didn’t do enough. He proved he could power a team unlike any other star of the past twenty years (sorry, Kobe, but it’s true). Last year, he won back the heart of Cleveland by returning to the town he burned in 2010. In 2015, by playing at an intensity that could power a small rust belt city, he proved that the love was real.
Which brings us to tonight in Cleveland. Either the Warriors could walk away with the first championship of a possible dynasty, or LeBron could force a Game 7 through sheer power of will. In a Game 7, anything can happen and with LeBron, all is possible.
Tonight in Cleveland represents a high watermark for the league, where a great story might come to its inevitable conclusion. Or LeBron will prove once again how special he is, and give us the greatest gift of all — even more basketball.
Photos by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images