NBA Dunk of the Week: LeBron Goddamned James

The Cleveland Cavaliers are in a hopeless situation against the Golden State Warriors, but LeBron is going down swinging (and throwing it off the glass to himself for dunks).
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

While watching the following play unfold, I really thought I knew what was going to happen. LeBron had the mismatch of his dreams: JaVale McGee, a very sweet but very hapless boy, isolated outside the paint. JaVale was about to get burned, I thought. Bron will loop around him, finish at the rim, and probably draw a foul. Textbook isolation off a switch, the perpetual victimizer roasting the perpetual victim. Seen it a million times before, I’ll see it a million times more before I am murdered by my children for my vast blogging fortune.


But then, divergence, reality branched into something much stranger than I saw at first. Instead of putting the ball down and driving LeBron… picks up his dribble? It seems so strange as to be a mistake, which, honestly, even after having watched this dunk countless times in preparation for this column, I’m still not convinced it isn’t. The calculus is just so straightforward, it’s the most 2.83 points per possession play imaginable, that the idea that a rational LeBron would opt to…

A. Pass out to one of his horrible teammates,

B. try to isolate and shoot over JaVale from a stationary position,

C. catch JaVale on a pump fake and draw contact, Thick Jimmy style, or

D. just kind of, I don’t know, openly travel, and dare the refs to call him on it, which would be a power move, but not, I suspect, a winning basketball play.

…instead of not driving, seemed like outright madness as much as anything. It just didn’t make any sense.

And then, for a millisecond, there, it made even less sense, as he pump faked and stepped away from contact. What the shit is this? A leaner? Why? What is he…

Oh. Oh my. The ball leaves his hands and towards the glass entirely too quickly, and you start to put it together. God bless LeBron’s brain fart, this weird moment of mental malfeasance where, for some reason, he DIDN’T drive, because the elegant purple flower that emerges from the mistake is so much better than anything my terrible, stupid brain, poisoned by linearism and hunting for inefficiency, could have imagined.

For the last two or so rounds, watching LeBron nearly single handedly gut out or not gut out wins against squads who are deeper and better organized than his rag-tag group of NBA washouts has alternated between inspiring and depressing, a celebration of singular genius, but it's also an exhibition of the limits of that genius.

Game after game, Bron goes out and kills himself for the lost cause of all lost causes, snakes passes through defenders, powers down dunks, does everything he can to keep himself rested and keep his team close, and game after game he is subjected to the pure manifestation of modernity itself pressing a boot onto his forehead and keeping him away from ultimate victory. We are watching, in no uncertain terms, the best player since Jordan outright lose his opportunity to definitively surpass that old brandy-swilling, cigar-chomping maniac once and for all, through no fault of his own. Fate decided to make his running mate a wingnut who did everything he could to get the hell out of town, make his front office comically incompetent, and made his primary opponent fundamentally unbeatable. The sheer number of foibles and coinkidinks that made this possible are brain rattling. The number of Westbrooks alienating Durants, Cavs selecting Anthony Bennetts and Andrew Wigginses, Draymonds getting drafted late, that led to this point, the whole of present league activity conspiring to press on ONE DUDE in front of a national TV audience is completely jaw dropping.

The only thing keeping it from being totally miserable is the monumental amount of piss and shit and brains Bron has seen it fit to put into his finest ever loss. Watch him, in defiance of common sense, toss a fucking pass to himself off a backboard and dunk it home, a 33-year-old man with three children and 15 seasons of NBA basketball—more than half of which found him in the Finals—executing a show-dunk primarily associated with young, spring-in-his-legs Tracy McGrady, transmuting it into some kind of old-head grind-it-out maneuver, an improvisation born out of desperation in the middle of an NBA Finals game.

Seven years ago, when he farted his way to a loss against the Mavericks in the Finals, this shit was unimaginable. He seemed cooked in a way, a great player who would not be transcendent. But here, after a postseason through the ringer, staring down another Finals loss, we’ve seen the pure truth of the dude: he bleeds and dies for basketball, even when it’s an impossible problem for him to solve.