Tuesday June 5th, 2007

Whatever unfolds over the next two weeks in the NBA's championship series, which was scheduled to begin on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, we are -- make no mistake -- beholding the LeBron Finals. Not since 1998, when Michael Jordan cleverly nudged aside Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell to hit the jump shot that gave his Chicago Bulls their sixth and last title, has the NBA had such a singular, celestial focus for its climactic event.

The San Antonio Spurs, seeking their fourth championship in nine years, are heavily favored to prevail against LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers, but that's merely a subplot. Right now, with the memory of James's immortal Game 5 performance in the Eastern Conference finals still fresh in the mind, the story line is about the young King who has finally shown he deserves to wear a crown.

Yes, we are officially in the LeBron era, past the post-Jordan interregnum during which the league hoped -- though could not be certain -- that James would one day arrive front and center in the Finals. The variegated talents James displayed against the Detroit Pistons may even extend to the draft on June 28. Won't the Portland Trail Blazers, who have the top pick, be more tempted to take 6'9" Texas forward Kevin Durant, a skinnier version of James but a version nonetheless, rather than Ohio State center Greg Oden? Could a 7-footer possibly supply the same entertainment dollar as an out-on-the-floor all-arounder? More to the point, will a pivotman, even a shot-changing stalwart like Oden, wield as much influence on a game as a swingman à la James?

In eliminating the Pistons in a 98-82 rout last Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, James followed up his Game 5 heroics (already a YouTube megahit) with a performance that can be summarized in one word: mature. The tendency for James, as for most 22-year-old superstars, would have been to come out at home and try to demonstrate that his feat of scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points was only a warmup. But he didn't. His shot wasn't falling, and Detroit, being disinclined to submit to public embarrassment once again, threw waves of defenders at him. Through it all, James stayed calm and focused, qualities that were amplified as the supposedly savvy Pistons imploded. James played the role of facilitator to rookie Daniel (Boobie) Gibson, who had a career-high 31 points and hit all five of his three-pointers in a nerveless display that Cleveland coach Mike Brown called "LeBronesque." It wasn't that good, but we now have an adjective to describe contemporary playoff brilliance.

In fact, Cleveland's Game 6 victory despite James's modest stat line (20 points on just 3-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, eight assists) was the worst news the Spurs could have received out of the Eastern finals. You mean, the Cavs can still be formidable even if LeBron is merely average instead of superhuman? "If you guys remember when I was in New York," James said after the game, referring to draft day in 2003, "I said I was going to light up Cleveland like it was Vegas." LeBron may have been iridescent on Saturday, but in a strictly electric sense he should spend some of his $90 million in Nike endorsement money to put a team of engineers on standby at his old-before-its-time arena. Malfunctions forced a 21-minute delay before the second quarter because neither shot clock in the 13-year-old Q was working.

But James was on a roll. "I'm going to be a G.M. someday," he said. Considering the turnaround he pulled off against Detroit, who can doubt him? Rarely if ever have teams exchanged identities so dramatically in midseries. The Pistons won the first two games by matching 79-76 scores with a casualness that suggested a sweep. The Cavaliers' 88-82 win in Game 3 at home was considered the gimme. Cleveland did it again in Game 4, 91-87, before the playoffs' defining moment: last Thursday's double-overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was then that the LeBron legend -- jump-started when he was a 15-year-old manchild in a St. Vincent-St. Mary High uniform in Akron -- was validated.

The suddenness of James's ascent as a playoff hero was astounding. Before the world championships in Japan last summer, the Team USA coaching staff was disappointed in James's effort and his inability to function offensively unless he had the ball. The coaches would have made LeBron the first cut after his lackadaisical initial week of practice were it not for the massive public relations fallout that would have resulted from the axing of the league's most globally marketed player. During his 27.3-point, 6.7-rebound, 6.0-assist regular season, there was a general yawning acceptance of James's talent but not really an appreciation. He dropped from All-NBA first team to second team, and sometimes seemed oddly disconnected from his fellow Cavs on the court.

Even two short weeks ago the public was defining James by his flaws. He didn't take the big shots -- witness his pass-off to forward Donyell Marshall in the waning seconds of the Game 1 loss. (Marshall missed a three from the corner.) He didn't complete the big plays -- witness the layup James missed late in Game 2. He looked so tentative at times, and his team looked so uncomfortable trying to back him, that it hardly seemed as if he was speeding along a learning curve. Perhaps it was just simple humiliation.

That was all before Game 5.

You probably know the cold, hard facts. James had 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. He played 50 of the 58 minutes. He scored the Cavs' final 25 points, including all of their 18 points in the two overtimes of a 109-107 win. The Pistons, normally angry and arrogant, gently succumbed, as though hypnotized by James's brilliance. He started the series as tyro but in that game became tutor, in the process accomplishing the unthinkable: He made Eastern Conference basketball watchable and lifted the hopes of a city desperate for a winner in this, the Cavaliers' 37th season.

James also vaulted right over the crucial steps that another number 23 had to take, one that most pundits saw as obligatory. It took Jordan three painful years of playoff losses before he emerged from the shadow of the glowering Pistons -- James did it in his second try.

How to explain Game 5 in basketball terms? Certainly Detroit was complicit. Known for their ability to change defenses on the fly, the Pistons seemed confused about what scheme they were playing. Sometimes, they had two defenders on James and neither stopped him; sometimes, after he (almost inevitably) sped by a single perimeter defender, no one picked him up. James came close to being a one-man team: The Cavs had only one assist in the game's final 22 minutes and just 13 for the game.

But the only real explanation is that the 6'8", 240-pound James unleashed everything that was already in his arsenal. He can break down defenses off the dribble, and if he gets near the basket, he will power-dunk on anyone's cabeza. He is a threat in the open floor. Watching him take off on a one-man fast break is breathtaking: He accelerates, accelerates even more, gets his defender turned around and then does that cabeza thing. Take a charge at your peril.

He can shoot standstill jumpers from the perimeter and absurd fadeaways that are unblockable. He has a decent midrange game -- witness his 16-footer from the right wing with the shot clock winding down in the last minute that proved to be the key basket in Game 3. He can post up and take advantage of his superior size at the small forward position, and he can nail jumpers off curls and pin-downs (though he does need to improve in that area). And most of all he is a willing and able passer, irrefutably in the league of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As good as James is going to the basket and firing from the outside, some defenses are hesitant to load up because they know when they do, he will find the open man.

James's Game 5 performance initiated an instant debate, rare in the NBA: Where to rank it in the pantheon of sterling one-man shows? It automatically falls below masterpieces that occurred in the Finals, such as Magic Johnson's 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist series-clincher in 1980 or Jordan's 45-point effort in '98, which he capped with the jumper that dumped the Jazz. But it surpasses Jordan's 63-point blitzkrieg in Boston Garden in '86, if only because the Bulls lost that game and the Cavs won this one.

"That was the single best game I've ever seen at this level in this atmosphere, hands down," said Brown. There were various other tributes offered (none by the sulky Pistons), but to a Cleveland sports public starved for success, the only fitting benediction would have been the one pronounced by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as he stood over the dying body of Abraham Lincoln: "Now he belongs to the ages." Some believe that Stanton said "the angels." As far as Cleveland fans are concerned, LeBron belongs to them, too.

The cavs won 17 games before James's arrival in 2003 and 35, 42 and 50 in the seasons that followed. When the team broke a huddle early this season, James suddenly yelled, "One, two, three ... championship!" instead of the defense that had always followed. It took Brown aback, but James kept saying it, and now, suddenly, it doesn't sound so absurd. Whatever happens in the Finals, James has made Clevelanders forget the Drive and the Fumble, the most egregious choke jobs by their beloved NFL Browns. It is not outlandish to claim that James is the most beloved Cleveland athlete since Jim Brown -- and one more integrated into the civic fabric, hailing as he does from Akron, 30 miles south.

So far he hasn't had a major public-relations slipup. There have been persistent reports that James doesn't agree with Mike Brown's offensive strategy, but perhaps both coach and superstar learned a little during the conference finals. No one is suggesting that James doesn't have a monumental ego -- the franchise runs on LeBron Standard Time -- but unlike Jordan, who had a wink-wink way of holding himself above his fellow Bulls even as he presented himself as one of the guys, James seems to authentically like his teammates. He identified Gibson as "a second-round steal" (the Texas product was drafted 42nd) and bonded with him immediately. James always encouraged Gibson to shoot, aiding and abetting his development behind starter Larry Hughes, who was largely ineffective against Detroit because of a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot. Before Game 6, James approached Gibson and told him that he expected to be double- and triple-teamed, "so get that gun and get it locked and loaded and just shoot it." NBA officials might have preferred a different metaphor, but there you are.

And when the game ended, James ran to 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center court and they embraced joyously. It was a gracious gesture by James, for two more different players could hardly be found: the one a magnificent, seemingly indestructible physical force of 22, the other an oft-injured, lumbering plugger who came to Cleveland in '96 and played in only four playoff games before James arrived. "Z has been through a lot, been through losing seasons, year after year after year," said James, "and I promised him when I got drafted, I was going to try to change it."

In the final analysis the Pistons couldn't do anything but come apart as the Cavs and their leader grew up in the cauldron of the conference finals. Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace -- increasingly insufferable as he tuned out coach Flip Saunders, hollered at his teammates and griped at refs like a Shakespearean shrew -- committed a brainless sixth foul with 7:44 left in Game 6, drew two technicals and was ejected. One couldn't help but think that marked an end of an era for these Pistons, who have made five straight conference finals but won only one title (in 2004).

Even if it may not yet be the Age of the Cavaliers, James, at least, seems prepared for the moment and the Spurs. The future of the East now runs through Cleveland, and Cleveland is ruled by a King.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.