On a likeness of LeBron James sketched on a building in downtown Cleveland, his long, powerful arms are extended, inviting his hometown fans along for the journey. He put the burden right where he said he would, on his right shoulder, on his left shoulder, all across his back.
Win an NBA title, the party never ends.
Lose to the Warriors, the burden never eases.
No, LeBron went back to Cleveland to invigorate his community and, perhaps, make amends for his less-than-gracious exit to Miami in 2010. But he came back mostly because he is obsessed with bringing home a championship, with breaking the streak of futility endured by the Cavaliers, the Indians and the Browns.
The 1964 NFL champion Browns are the last area team to win a title, and even that’s tarnished when scrutinized under a modern lens. The star running back, Jim Brown, has a long history of off-field violence against women and men. You want him to be the lingering face of your community? In these times? Don’t think so.
All eyes, instead, are on LeBron, first because he returned to his Akron roots, secondly because he is performing at a supremely high level, mitigating the roster’s flaws and Kevin Love’s transition into the invisible man. The Cavs’ supporting cast has its strengths – where would they be without Richard Jefferson? – but talent for talent, they’re not a match for Bird’s Celtics, Jordan’s Bulls, Johnson’s Lakers, Duncan’s Spurs or the healthy Warriors of 2014-15.
The hard numbers are even more daunting: No team has overcome a 1-3 deficit and captured the NBA championship.
“I’ll take it,” James insisted the other night. “It don’t matter to me. Like I told you guys the other day, it’s two of the greatest words in the world – Game 7 – so I’ll play it anywhere.”
While James is often characterized as passive-aggressive, more inclined to tweet his displeasure to teammates and coaches rather than confront them directly, his approach to this Finals rematch has only one gear. He is in full-throttle attack mode, never more so than the past two games.
He and Kyrie Irving each scored 41 points in Game 5, enabling the Cavs to avoid elimination. But back home for Game 6, James sketched a modern-era masterpiece. It was the championship stuff of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan, who are among the few players who dictated the outcome of series with meaningful, impactful performances and numbers. They understood when to score, when to pass, when to rebound, when to steal. James and Steph Curry are this generation’s basketball geniuses who see and understood situations faster than their peers.
James’ Game 6 was simply epic. With the Cavs jumping out quickly, he kept the pressure on, orchestrated the offense most of the night and expertly blended his deep threes with lobs to Tristan Thompson and crisp one-bounce passes to cutters. During one stretch in the second half, he assisted or scored on 27 consecutive field goals. And in contrast to the previous victory, when James and Irving settled on isolation moves and converted several very difficult shots, Game 6 could have been stolen from the Warriors’ playbook.
With rookie head coach Tyronn Lue exhorting them to play with more pace and take advantage of transition and early offensive opportunities, the Cavs shot 51.9 percent overall and 37.0 percent from beyond the arc, won the rebounding (54-48) and assist (24-19) categories, and also led in fast-break points, second-chance points and points in the paint.
Defensively, the Cavs were physical and focused, and made sure the Warriors knew they were around. One lasting image occurred in the second half when James chased down Curry, didn’t bite on the two-time MVP’s fake and blocked the layup from behind with his left hand.
“I’m just out there playing, just reading, just reacting,” James said afterward. “My teammates have put me in position to be successful either when I have the ball or don’t have the ball. They give me the ball whenever I would like it. Setting great screens and trying to put pressure on their defense. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the ball go through the hoop the last couple of games. So, you know, feel pretty good.”
Despite the long odds, the series tied at 3-3 and returning to Oracle, the Cavs are oozing confidence. The defending champs left Cleveland shaken, concerned, hobbled. Andrew Bogut, their best rim protector, is out for the duration with a knee sprain. Sixth man Andre Iguodala injured his back Thursday and struggled for the duration. And Curry, who missed time these playoffs with foot and knee problems, isn’t resembling a healthy, electrifying Curry.
After being ejected with four minutes remaining in Game 6, he angrily threw his mouthpiece at a fan seated courtside.
“The playoffs haven’t been easy,” Curry acknowledged. “So, yeah, it’s frustrating. Obviously we have to figure it out and make the necessary adjustments to slow them a bit and get our offense going so we can take advantage of our home court. So, at the end of the day, seven games to figure out who is going to be holding that trophy on Sunday. You’ve got to love that environment and that battle. I haven’t enjoyed much these last two games, but there are 48 minutes left.”
In those 48 minutes legends are born, legacies are burnished, others are tarnished. But nothing in sports is more dramatic than a seventh game that features the league’s two most dynamic players, its two best teams, and that Cleveland story line that simply refuses to go away.