OAKLAND, Calif.—Remember this when you are assessing all the things that LeBron James is and is not, when the argument is made that as dominant a player as he has been over his 12 NBA seasons, he just doesn’t win quite enough, that he doesn’t make enough clutch shots, that he will never measure up to the other 23, the one from Chicago.
Remember this when you are stacking "The Decision", and his losing record in the NBA Finals, and “Not one, not two, not three …” up against him. In the public’s consciousness, somehow James’ failures have always seemed to count more than his successes, which has never been fair. He may or may not be the greatest player ever, but if you are going to try to make that calculation, at least consider both sides of the ledger equally.
He made a compelling case for himself on Sunday, when he carried—or maybe, considering the ugliness of the game, “dragged” is more appropriate—the Cleveland Cavaliers to a victory that very few thought possible, a 95–93 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors that tied the Finals at 1-1. Say what you will about James. Did he play flawlessly? Not even close. He shot 11-of-35 on Sunday, including only 4-of-21 after halftime. Did he make every big shot? No. His lefty layup attempt would have won the game in regulation, but it bounced tantalizingly off the rim. Is he sometimes a bit melodramatic? Yes. After absorbing a hard foul from Golden State’s Draymond Green, James went down to one knee and stayed there maybe a beat or two too long, as if he wanted everyone to realize he was playing through pain.
But say this about him, too: There are very few players—very few—who could have taken a group of ordinary teammates, shaken by the loss of a second star, and made them Game 2 winners, on the road, over a team that is having one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. The Warriors were 47-3 at Oracle Arena before Sunday. Trying to beat them in front of their raucous fans is like trying to keep a wave from coming to shore.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime—I can think of a name or two, but that’s in the whole history of basketball—that can give you the kind of all-around performance and all-around leadership that LeBron does for this group,” Cavs coach David Blatt said. “He really willed his guys to win that game. That’s what a champion does, and obviously he’s a champion.”
James is a champion in the larger sense, having won two titles with the Miami Heat, but the King has no crown at the moment, and there seemed to be little chance he would earn other one this year, not after Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had been sidelined with season-ending injuries. When Irving went down during overtime in Game 1, the Cavs were staggered. When the announcement came the next day that he had a fractured kneecap, the expectation was that they would be down for the count. But James is the reason that even in their weakened state, Cleveland had—has—a puncher’s chance. LeBron will have to be Superman for the Cavs to beat the Warriors now, the thinking went, and he was for one night at least, finishing with 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists. A day earlier, he had said that he didn’t think playing the entire game was realistic, but as it turned out, he nearly did. James played 50:20 of the game’s 53 minutes.
“Am I built for it?” James said. “Of course I’m built for it. It’s a maximum of five games left in the NBA season, so I’m ready for whatever.”
This won’t go down as one of his more elegant performances. James beat the Warriors with isolation plays, holding the ball until late in the shot clock before shooting a fallaway or bulling his way to the basket, which usually resulted on one of three things: a bucket, a drawn foul or a kick-out to an open teammate. It was grinding, predictable basketball, the kind that has gone out of style in this age of free-flowing ball movement, but it was the Cavs’ only chance. “It’s the grit squad that we have,” James said. “If you’re looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, it’s not us.”
The Cavs in their current form will never be as aesthetically pleasing as Golden State, just as James, as powerful and even awe-inspiring as his game is, will never be as fun to watch as the Warriors’ star, Steph Curry. James may still be the best known player in the league, but Curry is pushing him for the title of most popular, and it’s not surprising. Curry’s excellence is endearing. James’s is almost frightening.
It has been Curry’s season—he has the MVP award on his mantle to prove it—but it was not his night. He shot 5-of-23 and missed 13 of his 15 three-point attempts, almost unimaginably poor marksmanship for one of the best shooters in league history. He airballed a jumper and turned the ball over on a bad pass in the game’s final seconds, summing up his night.
Curry and the Warriors left the door open enough for James to knock it down. In the absence of Irving, he was the Cavs’ de facto point guard at times. He worked the boards, grabbing a missed J.R. Smith three and converting it into two crucial free throws in the overtime. James had help, to be sure, with forward Tristan Thompson continuing to bedevil the Warriors on the boards and Matthew Dellavadova pestering Curry into that off-shooting night, but he also had to play through his teammates’ poor plays, both physical and mental. He drove and dished to Iman Shumpert for an open corner three that might have sealed the game with 16.9 seconds left, but Shumpert missed everything. Smith nearly derailed the Cavs with the kind of silly fouls that have earned him a reputation as a player who is as dangerous to his own team as he is to the opponent.
The Cavs now have new life as the series moves to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. Maybe that’s why James seemed so relaxed, chuckling at reporters’ questions after the game. He has already done more than what many observers thought he could in this series. It has been a long time since he has been a true underdog, maybe not since his first Finals with the Cavs against San Antonio in 2007, and he seems to be enjoying the role. “I use a little of it as motivation, but I have a lot of motivation already to be a part of greatness.”
There is also the drive to not just be part of greatness, but to be remembered as the greatest. James has more work to do in order to get there, and it starts with this series. It is unlikely that Curry and the rest of the Warriors will shoot so poorly again, and it may be telling that Golden State only played well for about four minutes, during their fourth-quarter comeback, and still nearly won the game.
So, the smart money still says Golden State will win the title and James’s record in NBA Finals will fall to 2-4. If that happens, mark it against him, because winning has to be factored into any measurement of greatness. But don’t forget nights like these, when James took a run-of-the-mill team and made it special, made it championship caliber. You don’t have to give James the title of the greatest ever, but at least give him his due.