By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A sneer.
A condescending, cocky-as-hell, “you don’t belong on the same planet as me” type of sneer.
A glare of incredulity, as if to say “are you serious, son?” without even uttering a word. Only a sneer.
It was the type of look from LeBron James that, on any other night over the past decade, might have fueled the fire for hatred of the game’s most dynamically dominant player. But on this night, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the second straight game of dominance from the 6-foot-8 forward, it was perfect.
He was right. Nobody else belonged on that court with LeBron James.
Of course, being an NBA game, it wasn’t without its share of sideshows. Steph Curry’s mouthguard heave. Ayesha Curry’s conspiracy tweet. The bad officiating. Klay Thompson’s early exit. Kevin Love’s presence in a trash can. Steve Kerr’s postgame ref bashing.
It’s all great theater. But it’s all sideshow.
The main event was, without question, LeBron James, who has channeled whatever the hell he had for that unforgettable 2012-Game 6-Eastern Conference finals-in-Boston performance to put the Cavaliers on his back and lead them in forcing a Finals Game 7 for just the third time by a team that trailed 3-1 in the series.
In Game 5, he was Batman to Kyrie Irving’s Robin (or perhaps it was the other way around). But in Game 6, there was only LeBron.
He finished with 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks. But he was much more than that.
He was an agitator. (Just ask the young man sitting courtside who’s covered in Curry’s spit.)
He was an attacker. (Just ask the poor rim.)
He was a person that managed to make Tristan Thompson look like a dang all-star.
On a night when many expected nothing from him, he was everything.
That included … being likeable.
Everyone’s relationship with LeBron James is different. Most everyone can appreciate his rare ability and his otherworldly blend of size and skill. Nobody doubts his talent. But many question his bona fides.
And that’s with good reason. His decision to bail out of Cleveland to join his superstar friends rubbed everybody the wrong way, and it’s a fair critique to say he was not “the man” in his two championship runs with the Heat. Granted, he did average 30 points during the first title run, and they did bulldoze the Thunder in that Finals, but perception is perception. The second Finals, despite 25-11-7 averages by LeBron, has been discredited by many because Ray Allen saved LeBron’s bacon.
And once again this year, it all came boiling back to the surface. The Cavs fell behind in the series 3-1. They were getting blown out of the building, losing Game 2 by an embarrassing 33 points. LeBron was about to become 2-5 in the Finals; 0-5 without the aid of Dwyane Wade. He was pulling his usual passive-aggressive routine with the media, claiming to be taking the high road when actually traveling on anything but.
He was, as always, LeBron.
But then the games began, and he became that other LeBron, the one who’s always seemingly bubbling just beneath the surface, capable of coming out but too often unwilling. That LeBron’s sporadic appearances have served as the foundation of just about every criticism of the player for the past 10 years: We’ve seen him take over games before, so why isn’t he doing that every night? Or at least, how does that guy ever fold?
That is the charge of greatness, and that’s the price to pay if you desire to be mentioned among the Jordans and the Birds and the Dr. J’s and the Magics and even the Kobes. In the greatest moments, the greatest players must be their greatest. While all of those greats do have some blemishes on their records, the feeling has always been that LeBron leads the greats in the category of coming up short.
It may not have been unfair. But it’s certainly in the midst of changing.
Of course, the completion of the transformation depends entirely on what happens Sunday night in Oakland. If the trend of the victor winning by an average of 20 points continues, and if LeBron finds himself on the losing end, then the events of Games 5 and 6 will likely be mere footnotes in history. But if LeBron can dig deep and conjure a third-straight performance in which he shows just how badly he felt scorned by Curry’s unanimous MVP selection, just how irritated he’s been for all the criticism that comes every June, just how much he actually wants to win a title in the city of Cleveland. If he can do that, the story just might change.
For some, of course, that will never happen. Minds have been made up on this person who’s been around for years. Opinions don’t always evolve. Losers are losers, whiners are whiners, and nothing ever changes. And again, that aspect of LeBron probably won’t ever change. He will utter absolutely preposterous lines about how opponents can’t swear at him because he’s a father. He will lobby the league for a suspension of an opponent without actually lobbying the league. He’ll seemingly lie about watching “The Godfather,” or he’ll deliver befuddling Theodore Roosevelt quotes after sweeping the Atlanta Hawks. He’ll always have his media defenders, to whom he can never do any wrong. He’ll always carry himself with the attitude of a man who’s been told since he was 5 years old that he was the greatest.
If that rubs you the wrong way, then fine. But nobody said you have to adopt the man into your family. It might be worthwhile to separate the greatness of the player and the flaws of the human.
At least, that’s what I was wrestling with late Thursday night, when LeBron was just relentless. Every time the Warriors sniffed hope, LeBron was there to either deliver a startlingly ferocious dunk or lob an all-too-easy-looking alley-oop to Thompson to whirl the crowd into a deafening roar.
From the jump, nothing was easy for the Warriors. LeBron made sure of it. Even after the game, LeBron dominated his interview with Craig Sager. With gray hairs showing on his beard, he praised the greatness of the Warriors and Curry and even Sager himself.
It was a perfect night for LeBron. And it all culminated perfectly in that one moment, the one casual block, the one play where LeBron knew what Steph was going to do before Steph knew what Steph was going to do. It was the second time in five minutes that James had properly predicted — not guessed; predicted — an opponent’s up-fake, as he had stolen what looked to be the easiest two points of the night for Draymond Green earlier in the fourth quarter.
The attitude that shone through after the block on Curry was something that in other moments might properly be described as arrogant, as obnoxious, and potentially as hilarious, because we’d all assume that an inevitable failure would soon be in his future.
But on this night in this one moment, it was undeniably different. LeBron’s always carried himself as someone who believes he’s better than everyone else. But right now? He looks like he knows it.
Maybe it just required us to see him be the underdog. Maybe we needed to see him do it on his own as the alpha. Or maybe we just haven’t seen this level of performance out of him. Whatever it may be, for the first time ever, all of that “We Are Witnesses” baloney that’s been shoved down our throats for years? It finally seems like the truth.