Entering the fourth quarter of Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat trailed the San Antonio Spurs by 19 points. The Spurs had rolled in the previous two games to take a 3-1 lead in the series, and they looked well on their way to closing out the title. The only thing that could stop them, it seemed, was a superhuman performance from the best basketball player in the world.
But LeBron James was unable to deliver such a performance. He attempted four shots in the final quarter, and went to the bench with just over six minutes left. He didn't return. I don't think he was mentally checked out, or not trying; it just seemed like the four-time regular season MVP and two-time defending Finals MVP felt as though he had nothing left to prove.
This season, his expectations were supposed to be modest after his storybook return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, after a disappointing start to the season, LeBron began facing a new slate of questions. Questions about his effort on defense, his health, and his leadership. He didn't seem to be clicking with his coach, or setting a good example for his younger teammates. It looked like some of his athleticism was gone. He just wasn't the same player that he once was. For the first time in a few years, LeBron became the subject of intense scrutiny.
Of course, it wasn't the first time that he faced scrutiny. This is a man who entered the league at the age of 18 with the weight of an entire franchise -- and the hopes of an entire city -- on his shoulders. Earlier in his career, he was called out for missing shots at the buzzer, or for passing them up entirely. He was often described as immature. It was said that he took a shortcut by joining the Heat in 2010, and that he wasn't good enough to win on his own.
One by one, he answered all of his critics on his way to the top. The expectations were always unreasonable, but he still found a way to meet them. Over the last three years, it would be nearly impossible to find a respectable basketball observer who would suggest that LeBron wasn't clutch, or mature, or capable of carrying a team to a title.
Now that some doubts have crept back into his narrative, he will have to find a way to answer his critics one more time. Only now, he won't be able to rely on an infinite well of ability like he could in past seasons. The truth is, he's 30 years old, and nobody is as spry at 30 as they were at 26. If he's going to re-establish himself as the consensus best player in the world, he'll have to do it with whatever is left in his athletic tank, along with a combination of basketball intelligence and the intangibles gained from his years of experience.
If LeBron's last four games are any indication, he's certainly still capable of greatness. Over this recent stretch, he's averaged 30 points, seven rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game while shooting an even 50 percent from the floor. And the Cavs have won all four games.
Maybe he'll never be truly the same, but he can still be very close.
I can't help but wonder what drives LeBron at this stage of his career. After that loss in the Finals last season, he seemed content. He obviously wanted to win, but he didn't sound like a man who was defined by winning the way that he once was. "We went to four straight Finals in four years," he said after that game. "We lost one, we won two, we lost another one. I'll take 50 percent of championships in four years any day."
Once you've seen the top of the mountain, I guess you can rest a lot easier the next time you stumble.
A month later, in his essay in Sports Illustrated, he said that bringing one championship to Northeast Ohio was now his most important goal. That challenge alone ought to be enough to fuel the fire of any player, given that no professional athlete in any sport has been able to do it since 1964. I've never met LeBron, but I believe he had that in mind when he decided to return. Surely he knows that immortality will be waiting for him on the other side if he is able to win one in Cleveland. That has to be part of what drives him.
One would also think that this new round of criticism will fuel him as well. No matter how content he felt with two titles and four MVPs under his belt, the recent doubts must have ripped some of that away. Everybody is driven by a desire to prove people wrong, at least a little bit. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, LeBron is only human, after all.
That's why, even in the midst of their sluggish start to the season, it was always foolish to count the Cavs out. They have LeBron James, and this version of LeBron James has every reason to be as motivated as ever. Count him out at your own risk.