Losing in the NBA Finals has driven LeBron James mad in previous years.
In 2011, he infamously reminded his haters they’d face the same personal problems while he continued to enjoy the good life. In 2015, he openly debated whether he’d rather lose in the Finals or miss the playoffs entirely.
But this year, he calmly accepted his fate – his Cavaliers losing, 4-1, to a supercharged Warriors team that spent most of the postseason looking unbeatable.
“It’s just not my time,” LeBron said.
Will it ever be LeBron’s time again?
He’s 32. Golden State’s stars – Stephen Curry (29), Kevin Durant (28), Klay Thompson (27) and Draymond Green (27) – are all younger, and as long as ownership is willing to spend, the core can remain in tact.
“They don’t show any signs of slowing down,” LeBron said.
The last time LeBron got run like this in the Finals, he left the aging Heat to return to Cleveland, which had stocked up on assets through years in the lottery. Departing won’t be an option – this year, at least. The Cavs have LeBron locked up for one more season, and he obviously has am affinity for Northeast Ohio.
But these Warriors are a challenge unlike any other.
When LeBron lost to the Spurs in 2014, his final year in Miami, he was asked about matching up with San Antonio the following year.
“I don’t think it’s just the Spurs. It’s the whole league,” LeBron said. “The whole league continues to get better every single year. Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It’s just how the league works.”
There was no such couching this year with Golden State, which LeBron called “one of the best playoff teams that this league has ever seen.”
“There’s going to be a lot of teams that’s trying to figure out ways to put personnel together to try and match that if they’re able to actually face them in the playoff series, both Eastern Conference and Western Conference,” LeBron said. “Because they’re built for – from my eyes, they’re built to last a few years.”
If a Warriors dynasty is just kicking into gear, that’d be tough timing for someone who is likely in the finals stages of his prime and is striving to surpass Michael Jordan. An ambition like that leaves little margin for error.
LeBron will never catch Jordan’s perfect 6-0 Finals record, a fact Jordan fans are quick to point out. But now LeBron (3-5 in the Finals) becomes just the fourth player – and first in decades – to lose five times in the title round.
LeBron’s legacy is secure as an all-time great, especially considering his Finals competition. Jerry West (1-8) and Elgin Baylor (0-7) are comfortably in that class, and they have even worse Finals records.
But they’re also not in the Michael Jordan tier of excellence, a level LeBron could theoretically still reach.
Time is running out, though – even if it didn’t appear to be in these Finals
LeBron was again fantastic, becoming the first player to average a triple-double in the Finals (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists). He shot 56.4% from the field, including 38.7% on 3-pointers.
Yet, it wasn’t close to enough.
The Cavs got outscored by just seven points in LeBron’s 212 minutes and by 27 points in the 28 minutes he sat. He somehow rested both not enough (tiring late in Game 3) and and way too much (Cleveland fell apart without him).
For the first time in the last three, maybe six,* years LeBron didn’t deserve Finals MVP. Durant outplayed him.
*I could go either way on LeBron and actual Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in 2014. LeBron – who won in 2012, 2013 and 2016 – deserved it in 2015 over Andre Iguodala.
The difference was defense. LeBron got roasted as the Cavaliers fell behind 2-0 in the series and picked up his intensity on that end only somewhat. Durant terrorized Cleveland with his length and basketball intelligence.
Of course, Durant shouldered a lesser load than LeBron while playing with so much more talent – making it easier to exert energy on both ends of the floor. But Durant out-produced LeBron this year and deserves credit for it.
That setup could remain in place for a while.
When will LeBron ever have to do less for his team to win a title? When will Durant ever have to do more?
“I have no reason to put my head down,” LeBron said. “I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”
That’s a healthy attitude. It’s the attitude of someone secure in his place.
But it’s not the attitude of someone consumed with winning, the type of unhealthy obsession often necessary to win a championship.
And maybe LeBron has just matured beyond that point, much easier with three titles under his belt. He has a wife and kids and priorities outside basketball.
Earlier in the Finals, LeBron called the Warriors adding Durant “great.” Add his placid demeanor after the series, and it seemed LeBron was content because he realized the challenge – no matter how hard he fought it – was too great.
But before Game 5, LeBron hinted he hadn’t revealed his full true feelings about Durant joining Golden State.
Maybe, just maybe, the greatest player of this generation is still deeply driven to topple the greatest team of this generation.