OAKLAND — There was 1:50 left in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and it was tied, 89-89.
Kyrie Irving had missed a floater in the lane, four Cavaliers were down around the offensive glass, and the ball bounced out to Andre Iguodala, who took the rebound and was off to the races. He pushed the ball up court, passed to Stephen Curry who gave it right back, and it looked like Iguodala had a clear path to the layup that would put the Warriors ahead.
Then LeBron James happened.
That play was a microcosm of the entire 2016 NBA Finals.
Golden State was up 3-1, going home and seemingly in control. A repeat title seemed inevitable.
Then LeBron James happened. The Warriors didn’t see him coming and couldn’t do anything to stop him.
After back-to-back 41-point games that carried the series to seven games, LeBron posted a triple-double in Game 7 — 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. He wasn’t just the best player on the court, he reminded everyone that he is the most dominant force in basketball right now, one of the all-time greats. LeBron was an absolute force of nature for the final three games of the series. He silenced his critics (well, at least for a day).
He was the obvious and unanimous choice as Finals MVP.
He cemented his legacy, adding to a long list of accomplishments being the man who brought Cleveland its first major professional sports title in more than five decades. He broke down in tears while holding the Larry O’Brien trophy because of that.
“I’m true to the game, and I know what I bring to the table,” LeBron said after the game, holding his daughter in his hands. “I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”
LeBron averaged ridiculous numbers through the Finals: 29.7 points, 8.9 assists, 11.3 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game. In the three elimination games for his Cavs this series he averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks a night LeBron’s game has always been about how he wasn’t just elite at one thing, he is elite at nearly everything. He showed that this series.
But that wasn’t his biggest contribution; it was his leadership that convinced the rest of his teammates that a historic comeback was possible.
“Learning from a guy like that is amazing … that guy led us all year,” Kyrie Irving said. “He knew what it took and how to lead us. We all just took it from there. We all were great in our roles.”
“For me, when I came up (to the interview podium) after we lost Game 4 at home, I said, hey, listen, we’ve got to take one possession, one game at a time,” LeBron said. “We’re going to Golden State, so we’ve got to fly home anyways, so why not have another game? And I believed in that. And my guys believe in me as their leader every single day. I preach to them every single day. I’m their leader, and they allow me to lead those guys every single night. I was just true to that….
“I told my guys before the game: Listen, there is a game to be played, but there’s not many guys, there’s not many teams that get an opportunity to be in the NBA Finals in a Game 7. There’s just not….” LeBron said. “I just told the guys: Don’t take this for granted. Don’t take it for granted. Let’s go out. Our coaching staff gave us a great plan; let’s go execute it.”
Over the past few days, and after the win, several Cavaliers talked about the sense of calm LeBron exuded despite the long odds of a comeback. How did he do that?
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” LeBron said. “I can sit up here and say — I don’t know if it was “The Godfather,” I don’t know if it was “Couples Retreat” that I watched, I don’t know if it was “Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13,” I don’t know if it was the “Revenge of the Nerds” that I watched. I really don’t know.
“But I was just so like, listen, you’ve put everything into the game. The game always gives back to people that’s true to the game. I’ve watched it. I know the history of the game, and I was just calm. I was calm. I was focused. I was locked in.”
This was LeBron’s third Finals MVP (he got the award both times he won in Miami). He joins some select company, the only players to win three or more Finals MVPs are Michael Jordan (six), Shaquille O’Neal (three), Tim Duncan (three) and Magic Johnson (three).
“LeBron, he deserves it. He’s a hard worker. He’s been the face of the NBA for 13 years…” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “The biggest thing with LeBron and the reason why I say he deserves it is because of the person that he is. He’s a giver. He’s always looking to take care of people. He’s always been nice to everyone. If anyone deserves it, LeBron James definitely deserves it.”
He does deserve it.
And he has given Cleveland sports fans what they wanted most.