LeBron James faced his toughest challenge in over a decade last June. For the first time since the 2007 Finals his team was hopelessly overmatched in a playoff series. He was facing perhaps the most talented roster ever assembled. Game 1 was in Oakland at a venue where the Warriors had demolished more talented iterations of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 the last two years.
The path simply to reach that moment had been tougher than usual for LeBron. For nine straight seasons his team finished with one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference. However, in the summer of 2017 Kyrie Irving became fed up with playing Robin to LeBron’s Batman and requested a trade. The Cavaliers acquiesced despite LeBron’s objections, and at age 33 LeBron was forced to take on a larger offensive load than he’d carried since his mid-20s. For the first time in his career he played all 82 games. He scored more than twice as many points as Kevin Love did, registered more assists than the next six guys combined and led the team in rebounds, steals and blocks by comfortable margins.
Despite his best efforts the Cavaliers finished 4th in the Eastern Conference and faced a tough road to the Finals. Their Round 1 opponent, the Indiana Pacers, pushed them to the limit. They shut down the role players to such a degree that LeBron led the team in scoring by a margin of 23 points per game. His individual greatness kept the Cavaliers alive. Every win was by four points or fewer. One required this sequence to finish the game:
In the end the Cavaliers survived an intense seven game series despite the best efforts of budding superstar Victor Oladipo. In his nine previous first round series LeBron held a 36-3 record. This time, they merely survived 4-3. It was the first time LeBron ever faced a Game 7 in round one.
Next up were the top-seeded Toronto Raptors. Despite falling to Cleveland the previous two years in lopsided contests this appeared to be an uphill battle for the Cavaliers. The Raptors were fresh off a 59 win season, and the Cavaliers no longer had Kyrie. The role players showed up in this round, however, and LeBron ripped out Toronto’s heart. In a tour de force, LeBron inflicted the worst beating ever suffered by a team of Toronto’s strength. The Cavaliers posted the second-best offensive rating of the 3-point era (the best ever also belongs to LeBron) while sweeping the Raptors. The series was so lopsided that it led to Toronto firing the soon to be Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey.
In the Eastern Conference Finals the Cavaliers would face a poised young Celtics team known for tough defense. Cleveland would lose by double digits in the first two games, but LeBron willed them to a pair of victories at home to level the series. On the road again for Game 5 the Cavaliers suffered another loss by double digits. A 46-point effort from LeBron at home staved off elimination, forcing a Game 7 on the road. After falling behind by 12 points in the first half the Cavaliers fought back and managed to pull off an ugly victory with LeBron playing all 48 minutes.
LeBron led the league in minutes in the regular season. The rest of the top 10 were out of the playoffs by the end of the first round. The rest of the top 25 were gone by the end of round 2. Here was LeBron James, still standing after round 3. He played 48 minutes in a Game 7. At this point he had played 3,769 minutes in the season. This, after playing into June each of the last seven years.
It was at this point he faced the challenge described in the introduction. Most thought the Warriors would sweep the Cavaliers with ease. A few thought the Cavaliers might steal one game at home. Almost no one thought the Cavs stood a chance in Game 1 on the road.
Game 1: Never Tell Me the Odds
Regardless of the fan and media expectations, LeBron and his teammates were ready for Game 1. From the opening tip it was clear they had a different perspective than the consensus. They took the fight to the Golden State Warriors, punching early and often. The first frame included five ties and eight lead changes in a back and forth struggle, and it felt more like a battle of Titans rather than David against Goliath. In the end the Cavaliers owned a 30-29 lead thanks in large part to 13 points and 3 assists from LeBron.
In the second quarter the Cavaliers tried to take control, slowly but surely staking out an 11 point lead with 5:19 left on the clock. LeBron added another 8 points and an assist before sitting down for a 3 minute break midway through the quarter. The Warriors, sensing the danger, amped up their defense and clawed their way back from the 51-40 deficit. With 1:23 left the score was tied 53-53, and the teams would head into the locker room with the score tied 56-56.
The momentum continued to swing toward the Warriors after the break. In the first 5 minutes they built a 7 point lead and a feeling of inevitability began to set in. The Warriors had beaten the Cavs 27-10 over the last 10 minutes of game time, and held a 68-61 lead. LeBron James was not deterred.
The next possession LeBron maneuvered the pick and roll to get Steph Curry switched on him, then drove past him in isolation and drew a foul on Draymond Green, whose help rotation was late because of how fast LeBron got to the rim. Two free throws later the score was 68-63.
After a stop LeBron brought the ball up in transition against a backpedaling Kevin Durant. Then, after faking a drive, he pulled up for a jump shot, adding two more points to the scoreboard.
A couple possessions later LeBron again brings the ball up in transition. With Klay Thompson stationed at the top of the arc LeBron dribbles smoothly into a 26-footer. A minute and a half after the game had started to slip away and the score is tied 68-68 thanks to LeBron’s personal 7-0 run.
The next few minutes are a back and forth battle, with three more ties and two lead changes. Looney makes a putback, and LeBron answers back with a mid-range jumper. LeBron pulls up in transition from 32 feet and drains it, having scored Cleveland’s last 12 points. Curry immediately answers back with a 27-footer of his own. Durant draws a foul in transition and makes both free throws. Kevin Love establishes deep position and makes a hook shot over Green to tie the score at 75-75.
The Warriors would close the quarter strongly, however, and LeBron faced an 84-78 deficit after his two minute rest. Over the next three and a half minutes he put on another show. A steal in transition and feed to Jeff Green for a dunk. A cut down the middle of the lane for a monster dunk. Assists to both Green and Korver on 3-pointers. With 7:31 remaining he scooped a layup high off the glass to put the Cavaliers ahead 92-91 despite the best efforts of Klay Thompson, who had 5 points and an assist during that span. That layup put LeBron up to 41 points in the game, along with 8 assists.
After a couple quiet minutes the Warriors again tried to put the game away with back-to-back triples surrounding a LeBron turnover. The score was 100-94 with less than 4 minutes remaining, but for a third time in the half he would carry the Cavaliers back into the game. A help rotation to cut off a Curry drive, then a shot alteration forcing a Looney miss. An attack out of a high pick and roll, bursting past Green’s help rotation for a layup. Another high pick and roll forces a Curry switch, and he immediately dashes past him to the rim for a dunk, making it a one point game.
This set up perhaps the most exciting minute of basketball of the season. Yet another high pick and roll forces a Curry switch. LeBron attacks to the right, beating Curry but heading directly toward a Looney help rotation. He goes into his chest and launches a double pump bank shot to take the lead, with the ensuing free throw making the score 104-102. The building, along with the national TV audience, is stunned.
On the next possession LeBron stepped in front of Durant, forcing officials to make their most important call of the season. In real time it appeared to be a charge, and it was called as such on the floor. After an extensive review, a potentially game winning charge was reversed, and Durant was awarded two free throws which he promptly made to tie the game.
Then a sideline out of bounds got the ball to LeBron at the top of the key. He promptly attacked to Durant’s left, leaving him in the dust, and rose up for a dunk. Green’s help rotation met him at the apex of his leap, however, so he changed plans mid-air and finished with a soft double pump layup.
Curry then answered back, weaving his way to the basket for a game tying layup. Further, he managed to draw a foul on Kevin Love, and after draining the free throw the score was 107-106 with less than 24 seconds remaining.
LeBron brought the ball up with Green guarding him. A high pick and roll resulted in a Curry and Green blitz, forcing him to pass to George Hill. The pass was off target and Hill had nowhere to go, so he waited and passed it back to LeBron at the top of the key with 10 seconds remaining. J.R. Smith was on the left wing, and with Love and Korver in the corners. The floor was spaced, but with no off-ball action occurring. The stage was set for LeBron to play the hero. Nine other players on the court, a sold out arena, 13.6 million viewers on TV; all eyes were locked on LeBron James:
And yet, for all the attention LeBron gets, so many fail to understand who he is. He’s one of the greatest talents to ever play the game. He may retire as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He’s capable of dominating in any given moment, or, as Detroit witnessed in 2007, every given moment. But at his core, as a basketball player, that’s not who he is. He’s an artist on the basketball court, and in any given situation he wants to make the right basketball play. He wants to get get the ball where it’s supposed to be, no matter how difficult it is to find an angle or how unlikely it might seem given the situation. He wants the play to run through him, but he doesn’t feel the need to be the endpoint even when all eyes are on him.
Only one other player on the court realized this at that moment, but one is all it takes. After passing the ball to LeBron at the top of the key George Hill began to sidestep his way over to the right wing. Green ignored him, assuming he was simply spacing the floor for LeBron. Then, with 7 seconds left on the clock he made one of the more audacious cuts in NBA history, putting himself between LeBron James and the basket with the game on the line.
Yet, because it was LeBron and not some other all-time great, they were on the same page. He cocked his arm back, preparing to fire a bullet. Klay Thompson, knowing he would throw that pass, was forced to foul Hill lest they give up an uncontested layup to lose the game. We all know what happens next: Hill missed the second free throw, Smith let the clock run out, LeBron appeared broken on the bench and the Cavaliers got run over in overtime. Those things mattered to the result of the game, and they became the story the media feasted on in the days and weeks to come. Yet, in the grand scheme of things they matter very little.
Take a step back and think about what that win would have meant. It wasn’t the 2004 Detroit Pistons putting the Los Angeles Lakers on notice that their time was finished. It was more in the vein of Allen Iverson and the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, standing in front of a giant and saying, “Not here. Not tonight.” A statement game, to be sure, but not one that would have impacted the final result of the series in any way. The errors by Hill and Smith cost the Cavaliers that statement, but what was a career-defining moment for a player on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore is getting lost in the shuffle.
Look back at the header image for this article, and then think about what LeBron had gone through to get to this moment: more than 3,800 minutes played on the season, battling through a pair of game 7s, putting up unprecedented postseason numbers, and playing 43 minutes and scoring 49 points to keep the Cavaliers in the game. Think about what this moment meant to him personally, how it would impact his legacy if he managed to slay this monster of a team on their home court. LeBron James put this moment, and with it a piece of his legacy, in the hands of his teammate. He did so because that’s his identity as a basketball player: a man with all the talent in the world that cares more about making the right play than about the results. To me, that will always be his legacy, and it’s the reason I’ll continue watching his artistry on the basketball court wherever he plays.
Special thanks to Riley Gisseman (@rgiss11) for the header graphic.