Through nearly five games, the 2018 LeBron James playoff experience felt askew. Though he Instagrammed about the onset of his annual Zero Dark Thirty-23 Mode, the corresponding tweet never came. I consider the tweet essential; Twitter is LeBron’s chosen platform for subtweeting his teammates and confronting the president of the United States. A declaration of his yearly social media blackout delivered on any other platform is half-hearted. The tweet is a testament to his commitment to winning as much as it is to his commitment to his teammates, and maybe he no longer fully buys in to a team assembled less than three months ago, featuring one guy who became a father to twins without telling his teammates beforehand and another who was embroiled in a tabloid scandal.
Games 1–4 between Cleveland and Indiana were an ugly slog, more marked by the Pacers’ blown opportunities than by particularly brilliant basketball. The Pacers were dragging LeBron down. He’s averaging 34.8 points, eight assists, 11.4 rebounds, and 42.7 minutes for the series. He’s living in a reality where 36-but-seems-46-year-old Jose Calderon is an essential cog on his team. Occasionally LeBron takes a play off and then we, the viewers, are subjected to Jordan Clarkson iso ball. When he pulls out extraordinary passing, his teammates miss. This LeBron James experience is unpleasant for all, and more akin to LeBron’s 2007 run to the Finals than any of the trips of the past seven years. This Cavs postseason was on track to be associated more with Thom Browne custom suits than anything that happened on the court.
Then, with the Cavs poised to lose Game 5 at home after relinquishing a six-point lead with 4:38 to go, LeBron James came through with another signature sequence. First he blocked a potential Victor Oladipo game-winner.
Yes, this may have been a goaltend. However, it was awesome. LeBron, after a sloppy turnover born out of fatigue, was beat by Dipo, but he got himself back into the play. The possibility of a goaltend and the fact it came on a night in April in Round 1 immediately disqualifies this play from James Pantheon Status. But, again, it was awesome. LeBron would not be dragged down any longer. He has resisted every provocation from Lance Stephenson and kept the complaining about his teammates to a minimum. His performance in this series—which the Cavs seem likely to win in the end—is free of the caveats that his critics and most obsessive followers like to lob. An emphatic highlight makes up for many sins.
The almost-goaltend block would have been enough, but then he immediately one-upped himself. LeBron hit the best game-winner of a playoffs in dire need of drama not born out of C.J. McCollum replying to randos on Twitter and an unfortunately inevitable flame-out in Oklahoma City. With three seconds left, he got the 3-pointer off with a full second to go. No need for review.
In LeBron’s postgame interview, he compared the final sequence to his performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves from earlier in the season that likely only Tom Thibodeau also remembers. He immediately downplayed the achievement, but his jump on the scorer’s table makes it clear that LeBron needed this. His one-man show likely won’t bring Cleveland another championship, and he shouldn’t have to do it all, but the playoffs and the league and the sport are more fun when he does.