For a moment last night, LeBron James soared up and up and up, above the foul lane, above the rim, above everything and everyone, the ball clutched in that colossal right hand and extended behind his head before he sent it tomahawking through the hoop. That display, the signature dunk of a player who has long toed the line between brutal physicality and balletic elegance, occurred roughly three minutes into Game 4 of last night’s Eastern Conference Finals between the Cavaliers and Hawks.
And in that moment you knew: It was game over, series over.
Maybe it isn’t much of a surprise that the Cavs finished off a sweep of Atlanta last night. Maybe the Hawks were not as good as their record indicated; maybe they were never going to be able to handle LeBron at his peak, but the fact that Cleveland did this while hobbled by injuries – and largely behind the efforts of LeBron and a series of piecemeal supporting characters – is a testament to the abilities of James himself, who proved he may still be ascending just at the moment when we thought he’d finally reached his peak.
This will be LeBron’s fifth straight appearance in the NBA Finals, but this one means the most of any, both emotionally and for his legacy. Skeptics will always view those championships he won with the Heat as an exercise in carpetbagging; but now LeBron is seeking a championship for his success-starved home state, and he’s doing it largely on his own. He’s doing it with one of his star teammates (Kevin Love) sidelined for the majority of the playoffs and the other so hobbled by injuries that a TNT graphic last night made Kyrie Irving’s body appear to have emerged straight out of a game of Operation.
Never before has LeBron’s usage rate been this high; never before has any team he’s played for relied this much on him. He’s spending hours in the training room, attempting to fight through a series of injuries himself. He’s still only 30, but he’s been at this since the age of 18, and at some point it’s going to begin to take a toll on his production. Which is why he cannot afford to waste any more time; if he truly hopes to be in the conversation with the one other man who still stands above him, he has to win now.
Who knows what the Cavs will look like next year, given that their roster is riddled with contract conundrums? Who knows if LeBron will start to come down to earth, given the way he’s testing his body this postseason? Who knows, if the Cavs somehow lose these NBA Finals in heartbreaking fashion, whether the same old story of Cleveland’s five-decade long streak of self-loathing will begin to take its toll on James himself?
The end, we can only hope, is still years away, but this could be the year LeBron James proves that he can carry a team on his back to an NBA championship. This could be the year he erases any lingering bitterness over The Decision, any sense that he either didn’t want to do it on his own or was afraid he couldn’t. His other teammates are overachieving, and they’re doing so largely because LeBron is playing better than he ever has. He is the best player on the floor, the best player in the sport and he’ll most likely have an opportunity in the Finals to take down the Warriors, the NBA’s best team.
At some point, he can’t go up anymore. At some point, LeBron James will come back to earth. Which is why this is now the most pivotal June of his entire career.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb