Can we start by stating the obvious, just so it sinks into the dense skulls of certain professional contrarians who continue to insist that LeBron James somehow lacks the emotional makeup to win a championship through sheer individual fortitude? So just because I feel like I have to say it, for posterity’s sake: LeBron James proved once again last night that he is the greatest basketball player of his generation, if not the greatest basketball player of any generation.
And he is mostly likely going to fail to win a championship again.
These are not opposing ideas, as much as certain talking heads who make their living questing for nits would like to make you think they are. It’s understandable that legacy is measured in terms of championships – hell, I’m pretty sure I made that point myself last week – but oftentimes, greatness is not, and LeBron James was pretty fucking great even in failure last night, in Cleveland’s 108-100 loss to Golden State in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. There were times when the Oracle Arena crowd seemed to have no idea what to do with him, whether they should jeer or genuflect; there were times when the Warriors themselves seemed to have no idea what to do with him, having made the decision that they would attempt to make LeBron beat them by himself, and then worrying, for most of the night, that he was probably going to do it.
The problem for LeBron is that people view him as more machine than man, and so when he does somehow malfunction – as he did at the end of regulation last night, missing a shot that would have won the game for the Cavaliers – people assume that it cannot possibly the fault of the body, and that it must be the fault of the mind. They forget about the 44 points he scored; they concern themselves with his mental fortitude in the final seconds.
This is not only idiotic, it’s unfair to LeBron. He is clearly playing for the inferior team, just as he was when he lost the Finals with Cleveland back in 2007, just as he (arguably) was last season when the Heat faced the Spurs. This was already true once big man Kevin Love went out of these playoffs with a dislocated shoulder; it is especially true now that Kyrie Irving re-injured his balky left knee in overtime last night, hyperextending it to the point that he told the media afterward he felt something “different” than his usual pain, and that he would be going in for an MRI as soon as possible.
Up to that point, Irving was fantastic, a flash of brilliance, so good that the Cavaliers were able to flummox a Warriors team that isn’t easily flummoxable. In the final minute of regulation, Irving’s spectacular block of Stephen Curry’s layup kept the game tied. Both Curry and Klay Thompson were forced to work for their points in ways they rarely had been forced to during these playoffs; the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson, who might be the most maniacal rebounder since Dennis Rodman, played 47 minutes and chased after a myriad of loose balls, affording the Cavs one opportunity after the next.
But this is the thing about the Warriors: They hang around, and hang around, and wait for their moment and tinker with varied lineups until they find one that works. Last night, they discovered that sixth man Andre Iguodala was the closest thing they have to a LeBron-stopper, and the fact that Iguodala also scored 15 points was essentially what enabled the Warriors to extend this game to overtime in the first place. (That, and a bit of luck, as Iman Shumpert’s desperation follow off LeBron’s errant shot in the final seconds of regulation just missed.)
To make up for the loss of Love, the Cavs are now essentially running their entire offense through LeBron. It was kind of astounding to watch, the way he was able to post up repeatedly, drive to the hoop when he wanted and hit mid-range jumpers; it was also kind of astounding to realize that the dude can finish with 44 points and still feel like he didn’t play anywhere near to his potential.
This is the problem for LeBron James, and it’s always going to be the problem; he is the basketball equivalent of “Too Big to Fail.” But without Irving, LeBron is almost certainly going to fail in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive season, and for the fourth time in six tries. Maybe it will affect his legacy, but it shouldn’t affect the fact that we’re watching a sheer force of nature, the likes of which we’ll never see again.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb