Midway through the second quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James dunked a ball so robustly that it momentarily turned crescent-shaped. He cocked his head skyward and howled; so did the rest of Cleveland. It may have appeared to be just another dunk – albeit a particularly ferocious one – but really, it was a symbol that the Cleveland Cavaliers had become what they were always destined to become: a clinical, undeniable juggernaut. And to quote LeBron, it’s about damn time.
Ever since the summer of 2014 when James spurned Miami to return to the county seat of Cuyahoga County, the Cavaliers have largely been a perfectly sturdy – if not occasionally excellent – team. Still, their success has been as much a byproduct of the Eastern Conference’s colossal suckitude as it has been their overwhelming talent. And even as the Cavaliers storm through the Eastern Conference (the Cavs compete with the likes of the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics in the same way that Mount Vesuvius “competed” with Pompeii or Chipotle “competes” with your large intestine), they’ve been haunted by a steady specter of turmoil and disorder: they’ve cycled through two coaches – David Blatt, a boob, was disposed of in favor of Tyronn Lue in January. Too, LeBron’s “beautiful mind” released a raft of silly, passive-aggressive tweets and Instagrams in March, thereby establishing him as the NBA’s worst social media-er barring that randy, randy man Kurt Rambis and pipelayer J.R. Smith. For the past 18 months, the Cavs have won, but they’ve won ugly and mostly in spite of themselves.
The best NBA teams possess the ability to bend the geometry of the sport, to alter the very dimensions and realms in which the game can be played. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors have passed and shot and passed and shot their way into yawning swaths of unimpeded space and the most dominant regular season in basketball history. The Oklahoma City Thunder, a gaggle of long legs and albatross wingspans, dominate the Y-axis – Russell Westbrook hurdles you, Kevin Durant shoots over you, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are just simply taller and nastier motherfuckers than you – and they shrink the court’s playable areas on defense, transforming 4,700 square feet of hardwood into a single claustrophobic bog. The Cavs, though, are able to seamlessly toggle between these two styles; they’re equally capable of unleashing Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith to rain fiery death from the three-point line as they are of trotting out Very Large Humans Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson to fortress the rim and gobble every available rebound.
For the Cavs, though, it’s not just geometry, it’s physics – with the added impulse of LeBron James, who, even at 31-years-old and with over 40,000 career minutes under his belt, remains LeBron James. He doesn’t only control geometry with the finesse of a modern day Euclid, he’s basketball’s most disruptive physical force, 250 pounds of unreasonable velocity, possessing a sense of monstrous force that drives the rest of his team. At their best, which they’ve mostly been during their 10-2 romp through the postseason, the Cavs play beautifully with ineluctable forward momentum, charging down the court and exerting sheer power over their opponents until the opportunity to dent a basketball or launch a perfectly calibrated 3-pointer presents itself.
There’s also that element of geography. Since this is Cleveland, a city with a 50-year title drought, the Cavs aren’t just a basketball team, they’re the rare beacon of hope and redemption after a half-century of citywide sporting ineptitude. With the Thunder and Warriors locked in a vicious, exhausting series and trading body blows – or, more aptly, nad kicks – the Cavs have their best chance of winning a championship in franchise history. Armed with the region’s Prodigal Son and an exceedingly capable supporting cast, the Cavs could finally get one for the ‘Land (then again, this is Cleveland, so they’ll most likely lose in the most excruciating way possible; if the Raptors’ sudden resurgence is a harbinger for what’s to come, that would be Kyle Lowry morphing into an actual raptor and mauling Kevin Love).
And because this is LeBron, there’s that obvious and obnoxious piece about history. After 13 seasons, it’s nearly impossible for James to play without every dribble, every pass, every carefully coordinated handshake being a referendum on his career and his place in basketball history. Ascending to stardom in a post-MJ, post-Colorado landscape, he quickly came to define the modern NBA with his megawatt smile, transformational talent and – according to the nearly 45,000 tinfoil hatters at the Facebook page LeBron James Haters UNITED – whiny, peacocking floppery. And for someone who is unimpeachably one of the five or so greatest players in the NBA, James’ legacy (if such a vague, nonsensical concept is even worth considering) is shockingly divisive; the accompanying debate, which a certain odious shout-orgy has undoubtedly embraced, is deafeningly loud.
This, however, isn’t the time to discuss all that; it’s useless to study LeBron’s past and future when his present is still so unformed. Now is the time to appreciate the Cavaliers – their beautiful geometry, their brutal physics, their crushing geography, their inchoate history. Now is the time to watch them face their final test.