LeBron James: NBA champion.
Get used to seeing that. There’s no use in holding out hope that LeBron and the mighty Heat will collapse and let the ever-more likable Kevin Durant’s Thunder come back to win this series. It is over.
LeBron James will be an NBA champion. And it could happen as early as tonight.
Breathe in, breathe out.
This certainly isn’t a sports world any of us ever really wanted to live in, but for most of us, we knew we were kidding ourselves to think the day would never come. Save for very few examples, most elite athletes eventually become champions. While it has been an undeniably fun ride to watch LeBron’s past playoff failures, the fact remained that he was still very young and still the most talented, explosive player on the planet. We didn’t want to believe it, but a championship was inevitable.
While most fans who have been turned off by LeBron over the years (for “The Decision,” for the “King James” nickname, for the championship guarantees, for whatever) may not be rooting for him in this Finals, it would take a magnificent level of denial to not respect what he’s doing. While some in the national media may have tried to turn his playing through a thigh cramp into a gladiator surviving several spear wounds, that’s not his fault.
The fact is, LeBron’s done everything you could ever want an immensely talented 6-foot-9, 250-plus pound basketball player to do. Facing elimination in Game 6 of the conference finals, he was nearly perfect, easily draining 45 points despite being in cruise control for most of the second half. He was a full-blown murderer that night, hitting dagger after dagger every single time the Celtics began a run that inspired a little bit of hope in the home crowd. And in Game 7? Ho-hum – just a 31-point, 12-rebound, 47-minute effort.
In the Finals, he’s averaged more than 29 points and 10 rebounds per game, and he also worked in a 12-assist performance in Game 4. Overall in 22 games in these playoffs, he’s averaging 30.5 points and 9.7 rebounds. Those numbers aren’t worlds better than his career postseason averages of 28.5 and 8.7, but the difference this year is he’s doing it when the pressure’s on and everyone’s waiting for him to fail. Admittedly, he has the undeniable advantage of taking (and making) more free throws than anyone else (he’s 165-for-225 through Game 4), but aside of a handful of calls in each series, he’s earning just about every trip he makes to the free-throw line.
The world need not praise LeBron for these performances, because really, these are the types of numbers that “The King” should be posting on a regular basis in big games. But you can’t ignore it. LeBron is playing like a champion.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen a transformation of this kind, and it’s not even the biggest superstar to do it in the past five years. That person would be Alex Rodriguez, who spent his entire career known as a regular season machine who wilted away every October. Then came 2009, when the then-34-year-old batted .365, posted a .500 on-base percentage, hit six homers and drove in 18 runs in 15 games as the Yankees won their first championship in a decade. The World Series MVP trophy went to Hideki Matsui, but the playoff MVP was undoubtedly A-Rod, the same person who had batted .159 with one home run and one RBI in his previous 13 playoff games and had hit just .224 in his 10 postseason series before 2009.
At the time, it was hard to process what we were seeing, but we’re definitely witnessing it again right now. When the Heat win, it will be because of LeBron. Yes, he joined a “superteam” to get it, but nobody on the Heat has even approached James’ level this postseason. They’ve all been passengers on James’ championship train.
What’s scarier for anyone intent on hating on LeBron’s skills forever is that he’s still just 27 years old. It may have taken a while to get to the top of the NBA mountain, but now that he’s here, each climb back will be a little bit easier.
And critics can’t say winning this title will be “just” one for LeBron. Many great, Hall of Fame players “just” have one. Three of them played in Boston for the past five years. Dirk Nowitzki got his one title last year, and it was dubbed as him finally earning the title he deserved, not a mark of failed potential for not winning more.
No, the fact is that very few great athletes end up retiring without winning. Ted Williams may be the best, and it is interesting that LeBron plays his home games underneath the banner for Dolphins legend Dan Marino, but LeBron will soon be out of that company.
Whether it’s tonight or Sunday night, or maybe even Tuesday, LeBron is going to be a champion. That impending reality has no doubt resulted in plenty of denial, anger and perhaps even some depression. It’s a lot to process, I know, but at this point, there’s no choice other than to reach the point of acceptance.