Haters gonna hate, but the detractors have no ground to stand on now. LeBron James has cemented his legacy as one of the top ten players in NBA history with his third championship, finally leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to triumph over Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Curry may have won the league MVP for the regular season, but when faced with the task of winning one series, it is impossible to see how anyone could choose Curry, or anyone else, over LeBron for their team.
How did we get here? Ten days ago, the Warriors won in Cleveland to take a 3-1 Finals series lead. Another Golden State championship appeared to be a forgone conclusion, and it looked like the Cavaliers would face another offseason of questions. But LeBron, despite all the doubters, has always played his best with his back against the wall. In Game 5 LeBron and Kyrie Irving each turned in 41-point efforts to lead the Cavs to a surprising victory. The path to becoming the first team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals was underway. An elevated intensity and focus from LeBron was evident the final three games. His effort and decision-making raised his team to a new level that allowed them to win the championship. And that is the career-defining moment everyone has always wanted from LeBron.
Coming back from down 3-1 against a 73-win Warriors team that was also defending the championship is the virtuoso performance of LeBron’s career. Facing elimination, playing on the road in Game 5, a lot of elite players would have packed it in. Explanations would have been reasonable had LeBron not been able to lead this patchy Cavs team to victory over a Warriors team that was trying to make history. But LeBron refused to lose. Repeatedly making winning plays is not as glamorous as some may want it to be, but it is all anyone could ever ask of LeBron. And it is all he did for the last three games.
The defining moment for LeBron was not as singular as Jordan’s final shot, Magic’s skyhook, Bird’s steal, or Bryant to SHAQ! (exclaim). If there was a moment, it came with 1:50 left – in the midst of a 3:46 stretch with no scoring – when LeBron delivered one of his trademark chase-down blocks to preserve a tie game. But the legacy of the Cavaliers’ first championship has more to do with LeBron’s consistency and control than it does with any one play.
Perhaps the frustration with LeBron’s career to this point was that he had never delivered a seminal moment in a championship run. Indeed, the best moments of his career were all in vain efforts for a title. In the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals LeBron claimed his place among the league’s best when he scored 25 straight and 29 of his team’s final 30 points in an overtime Game 5 win against the Detroit Pistons. This would be the moment everyone would point to when discussing LeBron’s ascension to a championship, but instead the Cavs were swept by the Spurs in the next round.
Two years later in the Eastern Conference Finals, the top-seeded Cavs were down 0-1 at home when LeBron hit a memorable game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat the Orlando Magic. Surely this would be LeBron’s shot, and he would cap it off with a title. But the Cavs did not even make it out of that series, losing to the Magic in six games.
As recently as last year, LeBron had a postseason moment that resonated. As the buzzer sounded on a Game 2 victory over the Warriors, LeBron slammed the ball down to the floor and exuberantly screamed. The Cavs had just defeated the favored Warriors on the road without Irving or Kevin Love. LeBron was doing everything as the Cavs took a 2-1 series lead. But of course the Warriors came back to win the series, and it seemed like that moment for LeBron was all for naught once again.
But now LeBron has his career-defining moment, or rather moments. In the closing three games of these 2016 Finals LeBron posted back-to-back 41 point games and then capped it off with a triple-double in Game 7.
LeBron’s sense of the moment in these Finals was sublime. His scoring and passing was at its near-perfect blend, and he turned up his defense when necessary. During Game 6, after the Cavs had jumped out to a 24-point lead, the Warriors cut the deficit to 8 with 9:04 left in the 4th quarter. LeBron sensed the game, and thus the series, was slipping away before it got within the Warriors’ lethal striking range. LeBron scored or assisted on the next seven Cavalier field goals, leading a 15-10 run that spanned 4:32 and closed out the game, securing a Game 7. It was a masterful offensive stretch from King James. That span ended with a Warriors timeout after a LeBron block on a Curry layup.
The 2016 NBA Finals are LeBron’s masterpiece, regardless of how the statistics rank compared to the rest of his incredible career. LeBron never has to worry about his basketball legacy ever again – he finally fulfilled his destiny and delivered a long-awaited championship to the franchise that drafted him.