“I came back, to bring a championship to this city. I gave everything that I had. I poured my heart, my blood, my sweat, my tears to this game. CLEVELAND! THIS IS FOR YOU!”
— LeBron James' Game 7 Postgame Interview
Throughout his storied career, LeBron James could seldom be described as subtle. As a high schooler, the hype surrounding him rose to unprecedented heights. He allowed millions to watch his landmark decision to leave Cleveland, and published his letter to the city when he decided to come back.
His on-court play also follows this narrative. He dunks with a special ferocity, as if he is trying to squash the opponent’s hope along with the ball. His passes zip around the court like lasers bouncing off mirrors, often ending their path in the hands of a wide-open teammate. And he has perfected the chasedown block, a play unique to James that encompasses everything great about him: Generational athleticism, superb instincts, and sheer determination to win.
So it was no surprise that in his postgame interview, subtlety was not at the front of LeBron’s mind. He yelled at the top of his lungs, as if he wanted Cavs fans to hear it in their homes two thousand miles away.
For many years, I was enraptured with LeBron. He seemed to usher in a new kind of star, one who did not always need the ball in his hands. While many compared him to Jordan, this was always (and still is) an incorrect analogy.
Rather, LeBron seized the league from the true MJ disciple, and never looked back. In so doing, he captured my imagination and my support. I wanted to be able to say, “I was there for LeBron,” and for that to mean something.
His legacy became a lot murkier with the rise of Golden State, and amidst Cleveland’s incessant turmoil. James was no longer the league’s preeminent star – that title going to a diminutive point guard who can barely dunk.
This season, drama continued to swirl in Cleveland. David Blatt was fired when the team was 30-11 – and it was the right move. A 57 win team had to reckon with the fact that their third best player would be rendered unplayable against their likely Finals opponent. Despite a 12-2 run in the Eastern playoffs, Cleveland did not resemble a true juggernaut. They did not resemble a team that could topple a 73 win supernova.
The idea that “no one gave the Cavs a chance” isn’t just a hot take – it’s the actual truth. And there was strong logic behind it. Statheads picked the Warriors across the board. Media types did not debate “Cleveland or Golden State,” but rather “Golden State in 5 or Golden State in 6.” After building a 3-1 lead, the masses (and I) felt certain that the Warriors would repeat as champions.
Draymond’s suspension changed all that. It gave Cleveland a lifeline they never relinquished. Many focused on Kyrie’s spectacular shot-making after Game 5, but it belied LeBron’s remarkable performance. Somehow the King finished with a relatively quiet line of 41-16-7 with three blocks and steals each. That activity on the defensive end would prove to be his calling card from the series.
For such a talented team, Cleveland spent much of the postseason below average defensively. Against feeble Eastern Conference opponents, they allowed 103 points per 100 possessions. The plodding Kevin Love was a common scapegoat for these woes, but he was only part of the problem.
All too often, it was the same culprit that plagued the Cavs on defense – chemistry. Teammates would miscommunicate a switch, overreach in the passing lanes, or forget to help. Cleveland got away with it against the likes of Atlanta and Toronto, but Golden State would surely decimate their leaky defense in the Finals. They did exactly that, scoring 115 points per 100 possessions as they built a 2-0 series lead.
The series turned in Game 3, at least from a defensive standpoint. Love’s concussion forced Tyronn Lue to start Richard Jefferson in his place, thereby moving LeBron to power forward. This is where our story really begins – with LeBron finally moving to his optimal position.
For so much of the year, Draymond was lauded for his positional versatility. Golden State discovered how a playmaking 4 can open up everything in the pick and roll. And he ensured his value by refusing to surrender points on the other end, flourishing as a 6’7’’ rim protector. He was the ultimate mismatch against Cleveland, the guy who made Golden State unbeatable whenever Kerr decided to play him at center. And yet, Lue never saw what James could do in that same role – until Game 3.
LeBron submitted a brilliant game (his first of many), and unlocked his potential as a rim protector. At 31 years old, and having tallied over 45,000 minutes, he is still as physically unstoppable as ever. He’s probably the strongest player in the league, and possesses otherworldly leaping abilities. Alongside Tristan Thompson, the Cavs bullied the Warriors on every single drive.
Golden State is not only a jump-shooting team, despite what Charles Barkley would have you believe. During the regular season, they made more shots within 10 feet than the Cavs, and were 5th in FG% from this area. Their 58% clip was identical to Cleveland’s.
In Games 3 through 7, that mark plummeted as the Cavs locked up. Golden State made 21 of these shots per game in the regular season, but managed just 13 per contest in their five game collapse. That 58% mark fell to 47%, an awful figure that seems even worse on game film. Slowed by his MCL, Curry’s scarce forays into the paint were smothered by LeBron.
Having transformed defensively, Cleveland proved a respectable foe against Golden State. The Warriors looked a bit on edge, strange for a 73 win team that had overcome a 3-1 series deficit just two weeks before. But they knew the truth as well as anyone – they did not own these Cavs as they had in the regular season.
Not even the most pessimistic Warrior could have forecasted the first quarter of Game 6. The Cavs came out swarming on defense, leveraging their length to disrupt Golden State’s attack. As they forced turnovers and scored in transition, the crowd urged the defense a notch higher on every possession. It was déjà vu for the Warriors, facing the same feedback loop that had fueled the Thunder's routs.
At the center of everything was LeBron, the omnipresent catalyst for Cleveland’s offense, and the linchpin of their newfound defense. As Kyrie regressed to the mean (1-7 on contested jumpers in Game 6 after finishing 10-14 in Game 5), James raised his level of play to keep the offense humming.
He found Tristan Thompson again and again for soul-crushing alley oops and easy dunks. All four of JR Smith’s threes were assisted by James. As a scorer, I’m not sure I have ever seen LeBron better. He shot 16-27, including 3-6 on the three pointers that had haunted him all season. He darted into the lane with blinding speed, both dishing passes and finishing his own drives.
Most impressively, he did all this while shouldering a colossal defensive load. James pushed the Cavs all the way to a 20 point first quarter lead, and then kept it secure against a team that has made massive comebacks look routine. Whenever Curry dragged Golden State back within single digits, LeBron answered with a run of his own. He finally exited late in the fourth, with his team up 21. While the Warriors tended to their wounds and limped to Game 7, the Cavs stormed in behind their fearless leader.
“At the end of the day, this is it for all of us. One more game. We’re gonna give it all we got, the Warriors will do the same, and we’ll live with the results . . . Two of the greatest words in the world: Game 7. I’d play it anywhere.”
— LeBron James' Game 6 Press Conference
The stakes of Game 7 were not lost on anyone. Many dubbed it the biggest game since Game 7 of 1984, which decided the first duel of Bird and Magic. For a whole generation of fans (including myself), it would be the most significant game of their lifetime.
Like most Game 7’s, both teams came out tight. LeBron never got into a shooting rhythm, and the Cavs looked depleted for much of the first half. The defensive lapses began to come back. Down 54-46 early in the third, Golden State seemed ready to ride a wave of shot-making to a title.
That stretch never came, of course. Twice within a minute, LeBron found JR for crucial threes. He disrupted two Golden State runouts, robbing them of easy baskets. Once again, James had stoked the fire of a Cavs run, bringing Cleveland within a point to begin the fourth quarter.
Ironically, the series that featured the two of the most prolific offensive teams ever was decided on defense. The game hung at 89-89 for an eternal 3:46 of game time. As the bricks piled up, each possession became increasingly magnified. It was like a World Cup final coming down to golden goal.
With 1:54 remaining, it looked like Golden State would finally break the stalemate. Andre Iguodala ripped down a rebound, and sprinted into a 2-on-1 with Curry. The MVP laid down a perfect bounce pass, and Iguodala rose to finish the go-ahead layup. If only it had been that simple.
I will never forget LeBron’s block as long as I live. Rarely is a play so spectacular also so poignant. Like the Cavs in this series, James came out of nowhere to swallow up the Warriors’ shot. He utilized his once-in-a-generation blend of speed, length, and jumping to catch up on a play where every other NBA player would have been beaten.
There were 336 minutes played in this series. The Cavs took the lead for good at the 335:07 mark. Kyrie’s jumper proved to be the golden goal, the shot that brought Cleveland its first sports title in 52 years.
As the final buzzer sounded, LeBron James finally let his emotions out. In a season filled with subtweets and passive-aggressiveness, there was nothing hidden here. He screamed, he wept, and he soaked every moment in.
LeBron’s first title in 2012 was a cathartic moment for him, and was all about exorcising his championship demons. In 2016, he had not only his own demons to contend with, but the struggles of an entire city. Rightfully or not, he was believed to be Cleveland’s savior.
When James wrote that letter proudly announcing his return, he ensured that he would forever be linked to Ohio. On Sunday night, he was finally able to make good on his promise. It was the greatest comeback in NBA history, led by the greatest Finals performance ever.
In the final five games of the series, LeBron averaged a 33-12-9, with 2.8 blocks and 2.4 steals. He assisted on 39% of Cleveland’s buckets. James was the paragon of a high-volume, ultra-efficient scorer. His true-shooting mark of 58% blasted Curry’s out of the water. He emerged as a fierce rim protector, solidifying his role as the league’s best power forward.
It took far longer than it should have, but this title will finally end any chatter about James’ supposed shortcomings in the clutch. He is unquestionably a top three player of all time. In snatching away Curry’s NBA title, LeBron also repo'ed the symbolic title of “best player in basketball.”
When he won in Miami, he was reviled by everyone outside of South Beach. This time, even the most staunch LeBron haters seem to have quieted down. He beat the greatest regular season team ever, and brought a title to a city that had only known sporting heartache.
Congrats, LeBron, on your masterpiece.