There’s no earthly reason that the Cavaliers should have been able to steal two games from a historically great Golden State Warriors team, one that finished with this season the highest point differential since the 72-win 1996-97 Chicago Bulls and hasn’t looked any different in the Finals.
Well, there is one reason: LeBron James has become Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds.
In all likelihood, the Warriors are going to send the Cavaliers packing. But even if his season ultimately ends in defeat, this version of LeBron makes you want to root for him more than at any other point in his career. He’s never been more of an improbable super-being on the court, but this noble, glorious failure—one man flinging everything he possibly has at a doomed, hopeless cause—has made him seem more human.
That’s the paradox. And that’s why LeBron James deserves the MVP of the 2015 NBA Finals, even if they lose the whole thing in six or seven games.
The endless comparisons to Michael Jordan that have dogged James are usually beside the point. But this is worth noting: His Airness never faced a team in the Finals as good as this iteration of the Warriors, nor was he ever saddled with a supporting cast as feeble as this depleted Cleveland team.
With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving out for the series with injuries, and the rest of the roster peppered with little more than escapees from the Island of Ex-Knick misfit toys, the Cavaliers’ offense has been reduced to a single useful play: King James planted in perpetuity on the left block, his Miami Heat days of yore, flanked by two All-Stars, a distant memory.
From that spot, he’s a 6-8 275 point center that’s either brutalizing the Warriors in the low post a la Shaquille O’Neal, banging home Dirk Nowitzki-style one-legged fadeaway jumpers, or picking out cutters and spot up shooters with a court vision and passing wizardry that would rival Magic Johnson.
The constant stream of isolations for LeBron is causing no amount of consternation for all of the pace-and-space acolytes of the analytically minded New NBA. But turning the game to a half-court slog by cramming a LeBron-shaped, superhuman wrench into the gears of the Warriors’ devastating offensive machine was and is the only path to glory. To wit, in the series Golden State is averaging only 93.59 plays per 100 possessions—a stark contrast to the top-ranked 100.69 gallop they played at during in the regular season.
It is brutal and ugly, and it is working likely better than anything else could.
It’s a by-any-means-necessary stratagem, and an ethos that can lack prettiness. As LeBron himself said after Game Two: “If you’re looking for us to play sexy-cute basketball, that’s not us.”
Efficient? It’s not that, either. LeBron’s shooting percentage currently sits at a tick under 40 percent. But efficiency has to take a back seat to what’s needed, and that’s LeBron with the ball in his hands and an endless parade of the same isolation play run through him. It’s a game plan that also plays right into the Cavs’ advantage on the boards, allowing them to gobble up extra possessions and gum up the Warriors’ devastating transition attack.
This is Frank Miller’s Dark Knight breaking the leader of the Mutants over his knee by goading him into battle down in the muck of a pitch-dark garbage dump. Squint and see if you can’t imagine a less-media savvy version of King James screwing on his best Christian Bale rasp, and growling, “You don’t get it, Boy. This isn’t a mudhole. It’s an operating table—and I’m a surgeon.”
And it’s a wonder to behold. Through the first five games, James has averaged a Herculean 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists while suiting up for a staggering 45 plus minutes per game.
The only other NBA Finals MVP to lose the series? Jerry West and his 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. LeBron has simply been better than that.
In Game 5 alone, James either scored or assisted on 70 of the 91 total points the Cavs scored. Or to put it another way, of the Cavs 32 buckets, a grand total of five came from someone on the roster not named LeBron James.
When the ball wasn’t in his hands, Cleveland threw up nothing but bricks—6 of 25 from the field and 1 of 11 from three-point range. For the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 13 points in the 22 minutes he’s been on the bench.
Extrapolate that to a full 48 minutes, and without LeBron Cleveland would lose every game by 28 points. With him they’re only down five.
ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh spoke to a group of top trainers and scientists in English football, and they’re equally gobsmacked—not just at James’s overall dominance, but at the idea that he could play “two games in three days while traveling across three time zones.”
The only equivalent athletic feat these experts could name that might compare to what James is attempting? “Maybe the Tour de France.”
“That’s the top of the top,” Michael Young, a noted expert from the Athletic Lab said. “Every one of these NBA guys are under a tremendous amount of stress at this point, but LeBron in particular, playing 46 minutes a game with that travel and quick turnaround… it’s a little insane. That’s unbelievable, really, to bear that mental and physical burden and still play at a high level.”
It is unbelievable. And he has still left open the possibility the unbelievable can become the impossible. He is, after all, 96 minutes away from winning the NBA Finals all by himself.
He probably won’t. He doesn’t need to. LeBron is the MVP anyway.