He’d worn himself out completely, just to get beat by double digits again.
After getting backdoored by Kevin Durant for an estimated thousandth time, LeBron James checked out of Game 2’s 132–113 loss with a little under four minutes to play. With a vacant (or distant: Game 3 is in Cleveland on Wednesday) look in his eye, he dapped everyone up on the way to his seat at the end of the bench. Shifting out his mouth guard, he picked up his Gatorade and leaned forward, his arms holding the weight of his body just over his knees. Were I to guess, he was thinking about how he was going to put up a performance like this again in Game 3, and maybe, just briefly, about what the point of putting up that kind of Herculean effort would even be. Especially when — in addition to everything the Warriors’ Big Four can do — things like Ian Clark coming off the bench for 10 points (or being the Warriors’ fifth-leading scorer in the 2017 playoffs, double yew tee eff) can also happen.
They are hurting us everywhere, his body language seemed to say. Everything they put up (check: 51.7 percent of everything they put up, which is the majority) is going in. Man, what the hell.
That may be projecting, but seriously, put anyone in LeBron’s shoes and I’m willing to bet they suffer the same existential crisis. What else is there to be done? We’re witnessing a man attempting to be the rudder, the anchor, the mast, and the sails while also being the lead rower and the hull plugs. On a sloop getting tossed around by a perfect storm like the one in The Perfect Storm, except it’s a sequel that added the NBA’s best offensive player. We could relitigate what that offseason coup meant for league competitiveness, but we are where we are now, and these 2017 Warriors are legitimately terrifying.
Dez Bryant wasn’t technically right — Kyrie Irving had 19 (on, gracious, 8-of-23 shooting) — but he wasn’t really wrong, either.
LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. The only people who dispute this truth are being willfully obtuse. This isn’t yet a eulogy of LeBron’s season, but we’re at the bargaining stage. After two games it’s clear the Cavaliers are some distance from being on par with the Warriors, and James’s greatness on its own is not looking sufficient. For instance, LeBron played near-perfect iso defense in the sequence that defined Game 2. All he did wrong was nibble on a pump fake, and that was plenty:
However, two things: First, whether Steph Curry was getting payback for being sonned last June or frantically searching for daylight, it sorrrta looked like he double-dribbled. (There was a foul by LeBron in here somewhere too, so.)
And second, the last time LeBron didn’t look sufficient, he’d lost the first two games of the 2016 NBA Finals to Golden State by a combined 48 points. This go around, despite this undeniable assemblage of superhuman basketball people, it’s only 41. He was greater than his obstacle then, and now, with at least two games remaining, at home, he could be again. With that he’d repeat to earn his fourth title in seven Finals appearances over what could be considered the best team in history. He would prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he’s exceeded the usefulness of any measurements against Michael Jordan’s standard of greatness.
That’s a lot of could bes and ifs, though, and betting on any of those outcomes seems foolhardy. But then again, so does betting against LeBron James. He’s felled so many other foes that, if not greater than, are at least equal to the one in front of him now. Here’s an incomplete list of the obstacles he’s vanquished in the past 13 years.
After Coming Home in 2014, LeBron signed a two-year deal, taking less money than he was worth, as he always had, to lock the right pieces in place for a contender. But because that deal had a player option — which he opted out of — the Cavaliers were put to the screws to continue building that contender while LeBron increased his salary year over year. Because, better than most of us, he understood that Gordian collective bargaining agreement and capitalized on the sizable salary-cap increase from the TV deal.
In August, he signed a three-year, $100 million contract (with a no-trade clause), making him, rightfully, the highest-paid player in the league. By next season, Dirk Nowitzki will be the only active player with more career earnings than James.
The Child-Prodigy Curse
Child prodigies often do not grow into adult geniuses, or mature gracefully at all. Greatest Pro Golfer of His Generation Tiger Woods was recently arrested and charged with driving under the influence (of prescription medicine, not alcohol, he said in a statement), God love him. Freddy Adu, whose star shone brightest a couple of American Soccer Saviors ago, was last seen piddling around in the North American Soccer League. Without Googling, could you tell me what Macaulay Culkin is up to right now?
This guy, on the other hand, who came in the league with a prom tux and Rorschach-test-ass Stacy Adams shoes at age 18, now has four MVPs and is vying for his fourth NBA championship.
I would have dissolved into dust.
Before this poor soul asked a needless question after Game 2, there was Cleveland sports talk radio host Kenny Roda of WHBC. And before Kenny there were plenty of others LeBron vaporized this season. Remember how Charles Barkley is a ghost now?
"Stick to Sports"
A little over a week ago, LeBron’s home in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles was vandalized. "Nigger" was spray-painted on one of the facades. When asked about the racist graffiti before Game 1, James spoke with a hint of resignation: "Racism will always be a part of the world, and of America."
Think about that. On the eve of one of this nation’s highest secular holidays, the best and most prominent athlete in that sport — which evidently (if you needed proof) does not keep him safe from prejudice — reminded everyone that people not wanting other people to exist because they look different is still a thing that’s happening. That’s something. LeBron James citing the spine-chilling open-casket service of Emmett Till, at a press conference, the day before the start of the NBA Finals, is something.
The Eastern Conference
Cleveland and Golden State shared similar paths on their way to Warriors-Cavs III. The Dubs ran the Western Conference table this season and plucked out the only viable threat in their way (the Spurs are great; the Spurs never had a chance), but the Warriors have dominated their turf for only three seasons. LeBron’s teams have sent an entire conference into an identity crisis for damn near a decade now.
The Indiana series was closer than the sweep suggested, but the Pacers learned, again, that you can’t bring a Paul George to a LeBron James fight. If you’re the Wizards, do you run it all back with the core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr.? Is there a future in that? Isaiah Thomas was heroic — HEROIC — this year, but not anywhere close to enough. Next year he’ll be 29, still a generous 5-foot-9 and change, and in all likelihood still a rock glancing off of LeBron’s head as he charges toward the team he’s really trying to beat. Do you trade Thomas and build around Markelle Fultz, whom you’re almost definitely getting?
These are all questions that have to be answered. These are all casualties of the lack of parity in the league. But then again, how well does parity age?
This goes two ways.
LeBron James is 32 years old, with 50,267 minutes’ worth of basketball (that’s counting just NBA games) on his body. And not only is he not regressing, but through continued reinventions both minor and major, he’s somehow on an upward trend. He’s getting better as he goes along and, to a viewer who feels mortal most of the time, it’s sort of rude. LeBron is rude.
Last year, with the Silicon Valley Warriors playing peak modern basketball and creating more and more galling moments of synthesis — WINNING 73 REGULAR-SEASON GAMES — LeBron’s "window" was closing. So he took a sledgehammer to the wall, beating impossible odds. Now the Warriors have come back with even more transfixing offensive weapons, and they’ve yet to lose a game in these playoffs.
All LeBron’s got to do is the impossible one more time.