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LeBron James did not wake up on Monday as a better basketball player than when he was on the morning of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. There will be some who rush to say that this, his third championship, seals his place among the greatest players the league has ever seen, but that's not true. He was already there, and everyone knew it. He just also happened to have unfinished business—a mission that's been driving him since a late-May night in 2003 when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA lottery. He nearly accomplished that mission a year ago, after four years away from his hometown team, but was thwarted by the combination of a shorthanded roster and an all-time great opponent.
The defining image of the 2015 NBA Finals was James, parked on the left block, shot clock ticking down, with only Andre Iguodala between him and the basket. It seemed like the two spent half the running time of the series locked in stasis, staring each other down. Iguodala reached and poked and nudged while James surveyed the floor and figured out what the hell to do with the ball, knowing he had precious few options elsewhere on the floor. Because of the injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, it was essentially up to LeBron to will the team to victory by himself.
James put up monster numbers, of course, but Iguodala made everything he did as difficult as possible. He didn't shut James down, because nobody does that. He just made sure James had to work his ass off on every single possession. It all resulted in 39.8 percent shooting, the third-worst field goal percentage James has posted in any postseason series in his career, behind only his initial Finals appearance against the unfadeable 2007 San Antonio Spurs and the first series he played against the Big Three Boston Celtics; those were two of the 15 best defenses of the three-point era. At the end of the series, Iguodala was deservingly named Finals MVP despite starting only three games and averaging "just" 16.3 points a night, the second-lowest scoring average of anyone so honored.
Iguodala earned the award because of how valiantly he locked horns with James for six games, but it was clear that James was the best player in the series, bar none. He led both teams in points, rebounds, and assists, becoming the only player in history to accumulate at least 200 points, 80 boards, and 50 dimes in a Finals series. It was almost entirely due to his singular brilliance that the Finals even got to a sixth game. He played a position that could best be described as point power shooting center. He was the primary point guard bringing it up the floor; he was the top pick-and-roll option as both the ball-handler and screener; he seemingly got the ball in the post at some point during every possession; and he played a huge role in Cleveland slowing down Golden State's transition attack through the first three games of the series before the Death Lineup swung things for good.
James had quite a bit more help from his friends this time around, and it freed him to play the some of the highest-quality basketball of his career. All year, James (and the rest of the Cavs) insisted that he is still the best player on the planet, regardless of whether someone else took home back-to-back MVP trophies. From Game 3 of these Finals, James reasserted that truth to a degree that was simply undeniable. In helping his Cavaliers to become the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, James ascended to a plane of greatness rarely reached in the history of the sport.
His final line for the series is astonishing: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 2.6 steals a night—all of them series-high figures. In Games 5, 6, and 7 alone, he poured in 109 points, snared 35 rebounds, dished out 29 assists, and nine steals and nine blocks, two of which (see below) should be included among the very best in the history of the NBA. And somehow these historic numbers do not convey the level to which James controlled every single inch of the floor for virtually all of the 144 minutes it took to complete his team's epic comeback.
The range on his jumper returned from its year-long hibernation at the exact moment the Cavaliers needed it most (even if it went by the wayside again for most of Game 7). The degree of difficulty on some of his passes was indescribable.
His defense...I mean, where do we start with his defense? The defining image of the 2016 Finals was either this:
James spent much of the series wrangling with Draymond Green, working to counter the deadly Curry-Green pick and roll that gave the entire league so much trouble over the last two seasons. As (many) others wrote throughout the series, Golden State went to that look less often in the Finals than at any time before. James spending time on Green had a lot to do with that. The assignment led to James switching onto both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson more and more often as the series went along, and he—along with Tristan Thompson and even, in Game 7, Love—was up to the task and more. He played passing lanes as well as he ever has in his life, jumping what looked like sure baskets and turning them abruptly around the other way.
And then there were those blocks. Let's start here: James stuffed Curry at the rim in three consecutive games. He swatted those shots away with a supreme and stunning disdain; in case you couldn't tell just based on how the shots were blocked, James delivered some stinkeye that spelled out his displeasure at Curry's gall in having the nerve to try him. In Game 7, at the most crucial possible moment, James pinned Iguodala's layup attempt AGAINST THE DAMN BACKBOARD, preserving the tie game and setting things up for Irving to knock down the biggest shot in the 46 years the Cavaliers have existed.
That block will be the final jewel in the King's crowning achievement, and it might well be the defining image of his career thus far. That it came at the expense of Iguodala, whose hounding defense bedeviled James all series, again, made it that much more special. But we are in a new universe of "special," here. James followed his back-to-back 41-point efforts in Games 5 and 6 with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists in Game 7; only two players had ever posted a triple-double in Game 7 of the Finals. James Worthy did it and won, and Jerry West did it and lost. Neither was quite like this, if only because no player has quite been like James
After his jumper once again went missing through the first half, James nailed a crucial fadeaway from the post over Shaun Livingston in the third, then hit a fadeaway three with Festus Ezeli in his eye in the fourth. He relentlessly drove through the Warriors' thicket of limbs in the paint, throwing his body against whoever stood in his way. He finished over, around, and through the Warriors, and on the game-icing possession nearly ended the world with what would have been the best dunk that I and most every other living person had ever seen. He made one of two free throws, and it was more than enough.
And James did all of this against what was arguably the best team in NBA history, one that looked as though it was headed for a 4-1 coronation and back-to-back titles as the capper to a 73-win season. Instead, James fulfilled not only his lifelong dream, but also the promise he made to the city of Cleveland when he decided to return to the Cavs after four years in Miami. He said in the letter announcing his return that the road to the title would be long, and it was. He said it would be a process, and it was. There were detours and infighting and subtweets; coaches were fired and trade rumors swirled endlessly. And somehow it ended just where James planned all along. It wasn't easy, and it never looked easy. It will be remembered for exactly those reasons.
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