BOSTON — There are those who place legacy in columns, draw the bottom-line report in simple accounting fashion.
And there are those who are willing to work in areas of gray, in terms of nuance and circumstance.
Some will say that Michael Jordan won six titles and Kobe Bryant won five (Bill Russell won 11 but is somehow usually not included in the counting discussion), and LeBron James has three, and that’s that.
Perhaps so, in the column, that is that.
But for those who entertain perspective, James did something in this postseason that deserves to be recognized and revered. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ 87-79 Game 7 victory in Boston on Sunday night earned James a silver trophy and not a gold one. It doesn’t feel right to put this accomplishment next to the titles.
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Yet it doesn’t seem fair to slide it in the list of Eastern Conference titles and move on. It’s the responsibility of basketball fans who are willing to explain to those who don’t know or aren’t born yet or maybe aren’t aware what James has done this season.
It will be easy to minimize this once the moment passes, to write it off as the Cavs getting fortunate that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were hurt, that the Boston Celtics were too young, that the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors weren’t worthy opponents. To wave it away with an entire generation of other Eastern Conference contenders that have become faceless to a certain extent in James’ wake.
That would be a disservice to James and a disservice to the history of the game. Love James or hate James, his performance has earned the respect to understand and hold true the authenticity of the achievement.
For example, James had 35 points, 15 rebounds, 9 assists and 8 turnovers in Game 7. That’s an excellent game. It’s not an all-time James game — it’s frankly a borderline top-10 performance just in this postseason. Reviewing just the columns, it’d be easy to let it fade into the crowd of James’ immense playoff résumé.
What must be understood is it came when James was playing in his 100th consecutive game of the season. That he played his third game in five days. That he got round-the-clock treatment on his right leg after playing 46 minutes to stave off elimination 48 hours earlier. That he played all 48 minutes in a playoff game for the first time since 2006, when he was 21 years old. That in the fourth quarter he made 4 of 6 shots, had three rebounds and four assists after he’d played 3,757 minutes this season, more than anyone else in the entire association.
For those who were around James, those who see him in the hours after a game or before he gets on the massage table or after he gets off the plane in the middle of the night, they can’t believe he rises to the occasion again and again.
“I mean, the bigger the stage, the bigger the player, and he’s been doing it for us since we’ve been here,” said Cavs coach Ty Lue. “The great quote from the great Doc Rivers is, ‘You always want to go into the Game 7 with the best player,’ and we have the best player on our team going into a Game 7. I like our chances. And he delivered again.”
Here’s the delivery situation: James has won six straight Game 7s over the past 10 years, two of them on the road. He has won seven of the past eight elimination games he’s been in, including three this postseason. And he has now come from 2-0 down to win a series three times in his career. That has happened only 20 times in seven-game series in NBA history.
The two times he has lost Game 7s were in Detroit in 2006 and in Boston in 2008. He has since beaten the Pistons four times in the playoffs and he’s gotten the Celtics five times in a row now.
He will go into the NBA Finals as an underdog, no matter who the Cavs play, for the seventh time in his nine trips. There’s a better than average chance this season won’t end in his fourth title and instead end in his sixth Finals loss. And for that, those who use the columns can use it to batter him.
“Jesus Christ, you think you’re frustrated? How would you like to get there eight times and not win?”
That’s what Jerry West said in 2011 when James called him after he lost his second Finals in his eighth season looking for a shoulder to cry on. West told James he’d wanted to quit several times after losing the first eight Finals he played in. That once when he was jogging in Los Angeles he was heckled by a passerby and he was driven to the edge of considering homicide. West is bitter about the history to this day; he frowns at the mere mention.
As he turns 80 on Monday, though, the historians have done him so much better. He was known as “Mr. Clutch,” and more recently, “The Logo.” Nuance, grainy highlights and oral history have made West’s legacy ironclad. He was done right.
The same respect is due for James. The trials of this season, the details surrounding the weakening of his team and the weekly challenges that he had to navigate while shouldering an incredible burden brought him to Game 7 in a preposterous position. The Cavs had no business being there; by all rights they should’ve lost to the Pacers a month ago.
The Cavs had a long celebration in their locker room after the game. Teams haven’t gotten to celebrate much on this patch of land, be it TD Garden or in the adjacent lot where the Boston Garden once stood. James has had a few of his darkest moments in that locker room.
Then he summed it up.
“It’s been roses,” James said. “There have been thorns. There’s been everything that you can ask for. I’ve said this has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had.”
OK, so not a championship in name, but it smelled just as sweet.