LeBron James’ greatness is one of the most debated topics in sports, and his play so far in the 2015 NBA Finals is only adding to the polarity of that debate. As his all-star teammates, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, have gone down during the playoffs due to injuries, James has continued to carry Cleveland to a 1-1 series tie against what is arguably the NBA’s deepest roster, that of the Golden State Warriors. Already regarded as the best player in the world, James has seemingly taken his play to another level to try to win his third title; the question, however, is can he continue this high level play enough to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first ever NBA title?
During the regular season, Love’s play and usage on the Cavaliers looked to be somewhat of an issue; indeed, his teammates and coach, David Blatt, could not figure it out. It was visibly clear to anyone watching this team that the former Timberwolf was not making a seamless transition to playing with high-level all-star teammates. As the regular season wore on, and the entire Cavaliers team learned to play together more fluidly, Love’s play began to resemble that of his time in Minnesota. Just around the time of the first round of playoffs against the Celtics, he and the Cavs offense finally looked like a completed puzzle.
Unfortunately, game three of the Boston series is when Love’s season ended on an awkward tie-up that saw his shoulder dislocated and his season seemingly over, no matter how far the Cavaliers got in the playoffs. This would be a dramatic blow to any playoff team’s title hopes, but because of the weakness of the other teams in the East and the talent of James and Irving, it still seemed possible to bring a title to Cleveland.
During their second-round series against the Bulls, not only James, but other role players as well, really stepped up and looked barely slowed by Love’s injury. Tristan Thompson quickly solidified the Cavaliers’ front line with his tenacity and rebounding. Other role players, like Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova, really grew into their roles, but, at its core, this Cavs team was still driven by James having perhaps the best playoff run of his career. This was even more evident in the Conference Finals against Atlanta, when Irving missed three of the four games in a sweep. Yet again, the man from Akron was forced to find another level in his already-elevated play, and he did just that by carrying his hobbled team to the finals for the first time since 2007.
Irving’s return for game one of the Finals was a huge boost, especially when he was showing off his defensive intensity guarding the MVP, Steph Curry, having some big blocks and steals in crucial moments. Again, though, the injury bug that has plagued the Cavaliers’ entire season bit Irving with a broken kneecap just at the end of the game, right before the overtime period started. Even with Irving’s return, James was still carrying the team in every sense, especially when ending game one with his highest finals score total of 44. The loss in this game was tough because of how the overtime went; the Cavaliers only got one field goal the entire five minutes, but all hope was not lost in the mind of James and his remaining teammates.
With his two all-star teammates out and facing another game in front of the Warriors’ raucous crowd, James seemingly reached an entirely new level of play. He knew that if he could continue to carry this Cavaliers team, and at least make sure the series was not over in five or fewer games, his legacy would be strengthened even more. That is exactly what he did in game two with perhaps his greatest-ever performance. Some naysayers will point to his inefficiency; only going 11-35 from the field, but how can that be a negative when his team won a game in Oakland to tie the series? The answer is that it is not a negative stat; James is doing everything for his team, playing his best defense and rallying his team to reach his level on that end as well as being the main facilitator and getting everyone else involved. Also, perhaps most importantly, he is being the emotional leader on a team whose only real finals-experienced players are mostly old and at the end of the bench.
Therefore, the answer to the question of whether James can continue to carry this Cavaliers team is a resounding “yes.” The only worry for the Cavs should be over-working the man who has now played a combined 96 minutes in the first two games of the finals, which both ended in overtime. Of course, the Warriors will have something to say about it and Curry will not likely have another 5-23 shooting night, but the way James is playing right now is on the level of some of the greatest performances in finals history. For his team to stay in this series, he will likely have to score around 40 and be in the triple-double range nearly every game, but he looks more motivated, confident and capable than ever before.
James is one of the most polarizing figures in the world of sports, but even his detractors have to respect how he has played in these playoffs. His total control of every aspect of the game and how he orchestrates his teammates is a thing of beauty; similar to a great quarterback or a dynamic playmaker in soccer. In an era where negativity runs rampant on the Internet and on social media, sports fans are watching greatness in this man and they need to appreciate what he is doing, because very few athletes are capable of rising to the level at which James is currently operating. Can he continue to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers? Yes.
Commentary by Max Petkevicius
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Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License