The 2018 NBA Finals are underway featuring LeBron James in a familiar position, as he leads the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors. James is playing in his eighth straight Finals appearance and ninth overall.
In Game 1 against the Warriors, the 14-time All-Star delivered in a big way once again with a career playoffs and Finals high of 51 points, coupled with eight rebounds and eight assists. Despite those gaudy numbers from James, the Cavs still lost, 124-114, in overtime. Still, it was clear that no one from the Warriors could stop him.
Though he has dominated the Eastern Conference for much of his career, the three-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player has been an underdog in seven of his nine appearances in the championship round and won three of them.
Surprisingly, he has won twice as an underdog and once as a favorite. His lone loss with his team as the favorite came in 2011 when James and the Miami Heat faced the Dirk Nowtzki-led Dallas Mavericks. That was the series where the 6-foot-8 forward had a meltdown of epic proportions that led to many questioning his mental toughness and stability in the biggest moments.
In this series against the Warriors, oddsmakers are practically giving the Cavs no chance of winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The odds are so much against him, by about everyone, that many are declaring that if James should impossibly carry this team to a title, it will be his greatest achievement by far. It will be greater, they say, than leading his team to a championship after going down 3-1 in 2016 to these same Warriors.
The Game 1 line opened with the @warriors as a 12-point favorite.
That would tie the largest spread in an NBA Finals game over the last 25 years (Lakers vs. 76ers in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals).
Tyronn Lue was involved in that one, too… pic.twitter.com/bjCLLUNhZV
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2018
But James has played spectacularly in these playoffs as an underdog. He has taken it upon himself to not make any excuses about his teammates not giving him the support that he needs.
In the two series prior to the Finals, the Cavs were never favored when they faced the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics. In each one, he carried the Cavaliers’ offense on his shoulders and controlled the tempo of the game.
Against the Raptors, the Cavs superstar averaged 34.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 11.3 assists, 1.0 blocks and 1.8 steals in 41.8 minutes. The series ended in a 4-0 sweep — including a buzzer-beating, running shot from James that won Game 3. He also had a 43-point game on Toronto’s home floor that, for all intents and purposes, sealed the series as the Raptors were never able to recover from his onslaught.
In the Celtics series that the Cavs won 4-3, he had 33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals in 41.1 minutes. In three of those games, the Akron native had 42 points in Game 2, 44 in Game 4, 46 in a must-win Game 6 and 35 in Game 7.
James senses the moment, recognizing when his team needs him the most and coming through for them at just the opportune time. And this isn’t just in the 2018 playoffs. James has been giving his team the best chance of winning a ballgame in the Finals as well.
In 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunder were favored to win the championship against the Miami Heat. But James got the best of Kevin Durant, winning handily 4-1, as the King finally got his first championship. James also came home with the Finals MVP award with averages of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals
In the 2016 NBA Finals, facing the Warriors who had the best record in the NBA with a 73-9 record, the Cavs were down 3-1 heading into Game 5. That’s when James staged the Cavs’ epic comeback with 41 points in Game 5, 41 in Game 6 and a triple-double in Game 7. His numbers, once again, were off the charts, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks.
Clearly, being an underdog doesn’t faze him.
The future Hall-of-Famer didn’t believe he could ever be an underdog before, but as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted from Episode 12 of the “Road Trippin’” podcast, it’s possible he may have had a change of heart last year after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.” He described the book as “unbelievable.”
In “David and Goliath,” which O’Connor also quoted, Gladwell decided to explore the stories of underdogs beginning with the most famous underdog story of all—David and Goliath.
According to Gladwell, “…much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”
The challenges James faced as an underdog produced the greatness within him as a basketball player and as an individual that we see before us today. We admire his exploits on the hardwood because these are the fruits of all those obstacles that were placed in front of him in the past, whether he won the championship or not.
He is the epitome of Gladwell’s study, one that has fascinated the New York Times bestselling author into exploring the underdog phenomena. He might as well have been talking about James when he wrote the book.
“…we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong,” Gladwell adds. “We misread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”
James and the Cavaliers face the unthinkable—winning against the dynasty-driven Warriors. They are the David to the Warriors’ Goliath. As someone who has faced these long odds before, the 15-year veteran is all too familiar with his team’s predicament heading into these Finals.
But he understands that the world is against him. That it doesn’t expect him to win and that he is fated to crumble under the might of the Warriors. And yet, he is in a position where he can “create opportunities and educate and enlighten.” If these playoffs are any indication, James has been achieving the unthinkable almost on a nightly basis.
Yet he keeps raising the bar even higher.
The 51-point outing in Game 1 may just be the beginning of the greatness that we’re about to witness. Perhaps, by series end, we’ll look and behold something beautiful in his grasp — the 2018 NBA championship trophy.