CLEVELAND—In this massive media landscape, sportswriters, bloggers and talking heads are prone to hyperbole, slaves to the the hot take. Good performances can be exaggerated as great; great efforts can be spun into legendary. We are addicted to historical comparisons (American Pharoah can’t carry Secretariat’s saddle!) while stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that while someone is doing something well, at some point there was probably someone doing it better.
All that, of course, is a preamble to this: LeBron James is two wins away from completing the greatest playoff performance in NBA history.
Cleveland took a 2-1 series lead with a 96–91 win over Golden State on Tuesday. It was both convincing—at one point, the Cavaliers led by as many as 20—and unnerving—Golden State nearly pulled off a stunning fourth-quarter comeback—while all the while being totally improbable. Season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have reduced Cleveland’s rotation to a pair of ex-Knicks (J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert), an ex-Nugget (Timofey Mozgov), an undrafted second-year player (Matthew Dellevadova), a paint-oriented power forward (Tristan Thompson) and a regular-season spare part (James Jones). And James, who is the only one that matters.
It’s generally accepted that the two worst Finals teams in NBA history are the 2001 76ers and the ’07 Cavaliers. Allen Iverson and a bunch of guys who played defense is how that Philly team is most often described, though the Sixers did have some very good defenders (George Lynch, Aaron McKie), one great defender (Dikembe Mutombo) and a Hall of Fame coach (Larry Brown) running the show. The ’07 Cavs, led by LeBron 1.0, were similarly devoid of scoring—there was a 12 point per game gap between James’s scoring average and the team’s second-leading scorer, Larry Hughes—but they at least had a couple of years of consistency and, in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a credible low post threat.
This Cleveland team doesn’t have any of that. They have a ’14 draft lottery roster that was retooled after James signed, cut-and-pasted back together at midseason and completely nuked from injuries by Game 2 of the Finals. Think about it: If Shumpert, who suffered a left shoulder injury after careening into a Draymond Green pick, was unable to return on Tuesday, Blatt would have been down to a six-man rotation with the golden oldie group of Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Brendan Haywood as his only options to choose from beyond it. Come to think of it, with Shumpert looking to be in considerable pain in the second half, that could still be a possibility.
It doesn’t matter. Not with James on the floor. Playing in an unimaginatively unimaginative offense—clearout after clearout after clearout—James is picking Golden State apart. He's scored more points (123) through three games than anyone in Finals history. Literally is an overused word, but watch Cleveland: they are literally getting the ball over half court, swinging it to James and getting out of his way. That’s not a knock on David Blatt, by the way. What is Blatt supposed to do? Hit the Warriors with a heavy dose of pin downs for Smith? Feature Mozgov more in the post? Blatt has the best—and one of the most intelligent—players in the game, one capable of reading a defense like a quarterback and barreling through it like a running back. Not giving him the ball would be criminally bad strategy.
Said Blatt, “He's playing and we're playing the way we want to play.”
It needs to be noted here that James is not playing with stiffs. Dellevadova has evolved into a respectable three-point shooter who has made Curry’s life miserable on the other end; Mozgov has completely outplayed Andrew Bogut; Thompson has been a menace on the offensive glass. Cleveland has good players. It’s just that when you line the Cavs' roster up against Golden State’s—or Houston’s, or Memphis’s or any team in the Western Conference playoff field, really—there is an obvious talent gap.
James closes it. Is he the only one that could? In today’s NBA, yes. Swap James for Curry—who got his jump shot finally going in the fourth quarter after missing everything in the first three—and the series is over in four. James Harden couldn’t beat the Warriors, and he had Dwight Howard. As great as Kevin Durant is, he isn’t as complete a player as James yet.
And historically? It’s hard to doubt Michael Jordan’s ability to do anything. Comparison’s of Jordan and James are foolish, if for no other reason that Jordan played in the Pat Riley hand-checking, no blood/no foul era whereas James, for as many hits as he takes, has far more league-mandated freedom of movement. Jordan might average 50 in a series like this. But would he rebound like James? Would he facilitate like him? As great as Jordan was—and to be clear, he’s the greatest player in NBA history—James has a better ability to elevate middling talent around him. Better than Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in that category, too.
Sacrilege? There are plenty of irrational James-haters, critics of a player whose only true failures come in highly visible public relations gaffs, who would say so. James is the most scrutinized athlete in sports history, a man who grew up in the age of social media and has had most of his daily movements chronicled. Dislike him if you must, but believe this: He is two wins away from doing something no other player could.