Watching LeBron James celebrate with his Cavaliers teammates, crying and hugging after delivering Cleveland their first championship in 52 years, accomplishing what he promised he would deliver after returning to "The Land" from Miami when no one really gave him a chance to pull it off, I was reminded of the final scene of Rounders.
(Warning, adult language, as in swearing)
John Malkovich's iconic "Teddy KGB" is us, Matt Damon is LeBron James, and the money is our respect. Pay that man his money.
I've never been a fan of James. That's no secret. I'm guessing many of you aren't, either. I thought he was overhyped and delighted in his failures. Back in 2013, prior to the Finals, I was bitter that only now were the Spurs getting proper attention, with a national audience actually looking forward to watching them in the league's showcase event. Not only did I believe that they hadn't gotten enough credit and love for their four previous titles but that the pundits hadn't given the Detroit Pistons team they defeated in 2005 enough praise for being a worthy opponent. I was insulted that the Spurs needed to play "The Heatles" to validate them in the eyes of the public.
And those feelings lasted about 10 minutes into Game 1 before I was converted. I felt a tension that was completely absent in 1999 against the Knicks, 2003 against the Nets and 2007 against a much younger version of James, where those Cavs were literally him and 11 randoms. It was a sensation I hadn't felt since Games 5-7 of that Pistons series, and this was Game 1. From the opening tip, the gravitas of that series was so much higher than anything we'd ever experienced. With all due respect to the Pistons and the Suns, everything paled in comparison.
I finally got it. The Spurs were finally playing against someone truly transcendent, an opportunity they never got against Michael Jordan. We would always remember this, win or lose, so much more than all of the others.
And we have.
Somehow, unbelievably, James' legend has only grown since his back-to-back tangles with the Spurs (in which, incidentally, he was much better in their 4-1 loss in 2014 than he was in their 4-3 win the year before). Even though he's gone head-to-head three times with Tim Duncan and our "Big Three," we have to acknowledge that his most significant accomplishment, the series that will be atop his voluminous list of accolades, is toppling the 73-win Warriors in one of the biggest if not the biggest upset in NBA history.
After this performance, I mean.... look, guys, none of us can ever say anything about him as a player again. Those days are gone. He led everyone in this series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He refused to be daunted by the 3-1 deficit, leading his team to road wins in Game 5 and Game 7. No NBA team had ever lost a 3-1 Finals lead in 32 previous tries and none of them had lost a Game 7 at home since 1978.
James overcame all of it.
Wowzers, what a Finals. That right there is why we watch, why we care so much, why we invest so much of our time, our money, our mental and emotional energy into sports. You simply can't ask for anything more from a basketball series, with so many storylines, so much talent on the floor and both squads playing their guts out. Selfishly, I suppose it'd be better if it was the Spurs who were the ones overcoming a 3-1 deficit, but honestly this wasn't a bad alternative. We couldn't have asked a more memorable way to close the book on the 2015-16 season. The playoffs were mostly a dud, but we got all-timers in the Western Conference Finals and Finals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Cleveland Cavaliers giving the Warriors everything they had, chopping them down like Rocky vs. Ivan Drago one kidney punch at a time.
Look at this picture and try to fathom what we're looking at.
Look where LeBron is when Iguodala plants to take off. He's in Canada. pic.twitter.com/TKRpVAhtZr— Jason Gay (@jasongay) June 20, 2016
This was the 46th minute of the game, in which James had played the previous 45. For him to still be able to hustle and close down Andre Iguodala at that stage, considering how far behind he was on the play and how much energy he'd already expended, considering the stakes and the situation, a tie game with two minutes remaining, it's right there with Danny Green in 2013 (fast-forward to 3:20 mark), Kawhi Leonard in 2014 on the pantheon of best defensive plays ever, right?
Let's look at James' block again, in full speed, because you probably didn't see the highlights of it 8,953 times already.
Did you notice that J.R. Smith slowed Iguodala just enough, forcing a double-pump, giving James the fraction of an extra second he needed to get there? It reminded me of this play.
Tony got in Dwyane Wade's way just enough.
Anyway, no athlete has been as scrutinized as much as James since the late Muhammad Ali, and he was picked apart for his life outside of the ring than his attributes in it. James has taken criticism for his Finals performances, for his decision to leave the Cavs in the first place, for the way he's chosen to promote and brand himself, for not shooting enough, for being a diva. He's even taken heat, no pun intended, for playing in an easy conference with no real competition which was always silly because A) no one ever ripped Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and the rest of the Lakers for mowing through a depleted West in the 80's and B) James' teams were the top seed in the East in only two of the past six years in which he's made the Finals and for the lion's share of his career he's had to go through a Boston Celtics team with four future Hall-of-Famers on their roster.
The reality is James is 3-4 in the Finals now and he's had the better team in just two of those series, 2011, where the Heat lost to Dallas (and that was their first year together) and 2013, where Miami had home court advantage and a more useful bench than the Spurs. There's nothing to be castigate the man about for going 2-3 as the underdog. Like I always say, there's no shame in winning when you're not the best team. James' great sin, if you want to characterize it as such, was making the Finals a bunch of times when he knew he was undermanned and out-gunned.
No, he's not Michael Jordan. He's not Tim Duncan either. That doesn't mean he's better or worse, he's just different. He affects games in more ways with his passing and rebounding. We've never seen anyone like him and probably never will. He's like a combination of Magic, Jordan and Larry Bird, thrown into a blender and poured into the empty vessel of Karl Malone's body.
James has a unique combination of skills but also a distinct mentality too. He's a basketball genius, but more than that he's shrewd and calculating from a personnel standpoint that many of his contemporaries aren't. He understood he was never going to have a good enough cast around him in Cleveland the first time around, joined Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and then left them four years later, betting on himself and on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love over Wade, Bosh and Pat Riley. The Cavs would've never been in position to draft someone like Irving without James leaving and Cleveland plummeting in the standings.
Then, with another Finals slipping away late in Game 4, James baited the temperamental Draymond Green into a flagrant foul, knowing full well he was one away from a suspension. He was brilliant after the game, passive-aggressively daring the league to do the right thing, declaring during his presser that he didn't expect Green to be punished. He played every note perfectly in orchestrating his magnum opus, on and off the floor.
All I know is after this performance, if you still want to align your views about James as a player with this shrill charlatan,
How can Kyrie Irving not be Finals MVP after his last four games?— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 20, 2016
The Spurs would've beaten these Cavs.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 20, 2016
Kyrie last 5 games: 30 in win, 34 as LeBron disappeared, 41 in win, 23 in win (tone-setting 20 in 1st half), 26 & game-winner in Game 7. MVP— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 20, 2016
Here it comes: Witnesses will now make the case LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) June 20, 2016
you'll be on the wrong side of history. Just give it up to the man and don't be a fool.
James' statistics both in the regular season and the playoffs are nonpareil. His numbers in elimination games are unfathomable. There's no point in comparing him to Jordan, to Duncan, to Wilt or anyone else because eras are different and big-men have different roles and responsibilities than wing players.
We just have to admit that when it comes to the all-time greats, James belongs in that final table.
And like Damon's "Mike McD," I wouldn't bet against him.