This is what happens when you’ve lived up to the hype and glory of being The Chosen One. When you’ve turned emotions in Ohio sideways and back with The Decision and The Letter.
When you’re LeBron James, back in the NBA Finals for a fifth consecutive year.
You can fuel some serious debate.
Is King James better than ever?
“If you put it all together, yeah,” the Cleveland Cavaliers star told reporters this week. “As far as my mind, my body, my game, you put everything in one bottle, it’s probably the best I’ve ever been.”
So there. He said it himself.
Years ago, such a comment might have been used against James as evidence of some sort of ego trip. But we should know better now, as Game 1 looms for the Cavs at the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night. This is a wise, dedicated man with more experience, merely speaking the truth.
James, 30, not only hit the most clutch shots and put his team on his back during this run to the Finals, but he has been more impressive than ever this season because of the manner in which he has demonstrated how much higher the ceiling existed for his leadership.
He quite literally guided the Cavs to the Finals – and through the adversities of a 19-20 mark near midseason, combined with key injury losses – when there was no other answer.
That’s why Jalen Rose, the ESPN analyst and former NBA guard – who calls James, “The most unselfish superstar in the game” – is in the better-than-ever choir.
“A coach’s dream,” Rose told USA TODAY Sports.
David Blatt, the much-ridiculed, first-year Cavs coach, must be sleeping well.
Or, as Rose put it, “LeBron’s essentially telling him, ‘Happy Birthday,’ every day.”
Go ahead, nitpick if you will. James is shooting 17.6% from three-point range during the playoffs (12 for 68), which if the rate holds up would be the worst ever in postseason for a player with at least 50 attempts.
No matter. James nearly averaged a triple-double (30.1 points, 11 rebounds, 9.3 assists) in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks, which underscores his dominance.
And it’s about timing, too. Sometimes, 17.6% doesn’t matter. Rose chuckled when recalling the trey from the corner that won Game 4 of the semifinals at Chicago at the buzzer.
“In-freaking sane,” he described.
Then he marveled some more, for context.
“He’s the same size and build as Karl Malone – 6-9, 260,” Rose pointed out. “That shows how the game has evolved.”
James has long had the man-among-boys vibe that made it a dare to stop him, and it’s probable that the Warriors will try to slow him down in shifts. Yet there’s nothing new about all of that.
No, this is about the journey. When James returned to Cleveland, back home, he preached patience rather than in-your-face expectations – remember the Big Three celebration in Miami, with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, “Not one…not two…” – for a franchise that won 33 games last season.
They needed time to mesh with the pieces that included Kyrie Irvin and Kevin Love, obtained from the Minnesota Timberwolves in a trade for the No. 1 pick overall, Andrew Wiggins.
Yet patience was just the beginning, as the record near midseason suggested. James took a two-week hiatus to mend, physically and probably mentally, too. The Cavs rewired the supporting cast with the in-season trades that landed Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the New York Knicks.
There was no need to panic. The Cavs are in the East. They won 34 of their final 43 regular-season games, with James leading the way as the essential player-coach who showed them how to win.
Any team with James always has a chance to get to the Finals, which is why he’s the first player since the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics to advance this far for five consecutive seasons.
Yet who knew it would happen like this? To get here, it has been so oft-script. Center Anderson Varejao torn an Achilles tendon in December. Love’s playoffs were finished by the dislocated shoulder suffered in a tussle with Boston’s Kelly Olynyk in the opening round. Irving is just now close to returning from knee and foot injuries, with little promise for how he’ll hold up.
And if hasn’t been a piece of cake for James, either. He collapsed on the court, in exhaustion, after his incredible performance in the Game 3 against the Hawks that went to overtime.
He’s back for more, in another type of overtime. Better than ever.