CLEVELAND — Don’t get distracted. Don’t be fooled. Don’t let anybody tell you that the story of the Cavaliers’ 106–101 Game 5 win over the Bulls was Taj Gibson getting ejected, or the two coaches under fire (one from above, one from outside), or whether James wore a headband, or even an injured Kyrie Irving scoring 25 points, as impressive as that was.
The story was familiar and simple: One of the best basketball players ever took over the game. This was the LeBron James Show, in its 12th season, and for a day, let’s recognize that the subplots are just subplots. They are not the show.
This is the show: With 1.5 seconds left in Game 4, the Cavs trailed the series 2–1 and the game was tied. Cavs coach David Blatt asked James to inbound, and James told him that was a generous offer, but he must respectfully decline. Since that moment, James has scored 40 points on 25 shots, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished six assists, added three blocks and three steals, and committed zero turnovers. The Cavs now lead the series 3–2.
James did all this while being guarded by one of the best defensive players in the league (Jimmy Butler), who is surrounded by one of the best defensive teams in the league and coached by the best defensive coach in the league (Tom Thibodeau). He did it with co-star Kevin Love out with a shoulder injury, and his other co-star, Irving, playing through knee and foot injuries. And he did it while playing largely in the post, which was not remotely part of his game when he first ascended to his status as the best player in the world.
Did I miss anything? As a matter of fact, yes. As Cavs assistant Jim Boylan said after Game 5: “The amazing thing for me about LeBron right now is, with all of that, their schemes are based on stopping him.”
[daily_cut.nba]On the stat sheet, this one doesn’t beat James’ 48-point, nine-rebound, seven-assist night against the Pistons in a Game 5 in 2007, when he scored his team’s final 25 points. But in a way, this was more impressive. That night in 2007, he gave a solo performance. This time, he pulled all the strings for his team. His post passing was incredibly effective, and it helps explain why Irving scored 25; Irving can’t get to the hoop like he normally does, but the Cavs got him open shots anyway.
And as Boylan said, “The efficiency that he had tonight is amazing. It has to be hard for Chicago, and for a guy like Jimmy Butler, who I have great respect for, to come out every night in a series like this and have to play against LeBron.”
Very few players in NBA history could do what James just did. It’s not just that he has the skills to play all five positions on the floor, which is rare enough. He has the mental acuity to seamlessly slide from one position to another. Boylan said the difference between what the Cavs normally ask James to do, and what he is doing now, is “definitely significant. We play through LeBron a lot when we’re healthy but now the emphasis is really magnified.”
The Bulls were down one man, Pau Gasol, and lost Gibson when he was ejected for trying to free his foot from Matthew Dellavedova’s leg-lock. Gibson added a kick, but the ejection was ridiculous. The Bulls have every reason to be upset. But you got the feeling James was not going to let them win whether Gibson played or not.
One sequence summed up James’s performance. In the final minute, he whipped a pass to Irving for an open three. Irving missed, the ball ended up in Derrick Rose’s hands, and Rose led a fast break and tried a layup … which James blocked.
“There’s not many guys that can do that, man,” Boylan said. “That shows what a great athlete he is. He could be whatever he wants to be. You look at a play like that and think, If he was a defensive back, or if he was a linebacker … if he was a centerfielder, he’d jump up over the wall and steal that home run from somebody.”
You know this, of course. Every basketball fan does. But sometimes it gets a little lost in the sea of mini-stories, fluff stories and non-stories. No, James does not seem to have much respect for Blatt. Yes, he can be passive-aggressive in his comments—his new favorite clause is “for my teammates,” as in, “I just try to be efficient for my teammates,” as if to remind us that he plays for them and not the guy in the suit. He can complain to the refs too much at times, and he doesn’t have the complete faith in his outside shot that some of the greats had.
On the other hand, he is the greatest package of skill and talent in NBA history.
So, you know, that’s pretty good.
Maybe James has lost a step. He is still three steps ahead of 98% of the NBA. It was obvious in Game 5. And it’s important to note that now, because here is reality: With the injuries, this Cavaliers team probably isn’t good enough to win a championship. LeBron James can’t win the title by himself. He is just so good that he seems like he can.