Monday was the five-year anniversary of Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics. That game was the second-to-last one LeBron James played as a member of those Cavs, and it was one of his most memorable -- for all the wrong reasons. He went 3-of-14 from the field as his team was blown out in front of their home crowd by 32 points.
That served as a prelude to LeBron's exit from Cleveland, and to his disappointing performance in the 2011 NBA Finals.
But since then, LeBron has proven that Game 5 in 2010 was an aberration. After 2011, he consistently delivered in the biggest moments. In a crucial Game 6 with his team down 3-2 to Boston in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, he scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. In that one night, LeBron completely changed the way people thought about his playoff mettle. He went on to win a pair of Finals MVPs, and nothing has ever been the same.
Still, with LeBron playing a Game 5 for the first time back at Quicken Loans Arena last night, it was hard not to notice the parallels to 2010. The Cavs were tied 2-2 against a tough and tested Eastern Conference foe. With many of his usual running mates suffering from injuries, the pressure was on LeBron to carry the load on offense, just as it was five years ago.
So when the Bulls raced out to an eight point lead to start the game, I couldn't help but worry: Here we go again.
My worries were misguided. This was not the same 25-year-old LeBron who folded against the Celtics. This was 30-year-old LeBron; two-time champion LeBron. This was LeBron with less athleticism, but more command. This was the LeBron the Cavs thought they were getting last summer, who they've seen only sparingly throughout this season.
Last night, LeBron was everything his team needed him to be, and everything Cavs fans ever hoped he could be.
Writing about sports, and writing about LeBron in particular, seems to require the occasional use of cliches and simple narratives. Maybe it is lazy to draw a connection between what LeBron did last night, and what happened in 2010. Perhaps he just happened to have a good game this time, a bad one five years ago, and it is a stretch to try and assign any greater meaning to the time that passed in between. Or maybe this Cavs team, especially with Kyrie Irving finding a way to give them something, is just better than the 2010 Cavs.
Either way, it still felt like last night's game mattered, and not just because it gave the Cavs a crucial lead in the series. One of the most frustrating things about LeBron's departure back then was the fact that our final images of him on the Cavs were that Game 5 performance, and the way he ripped off his jersey after they were eliminated in Boston. It wasn't just his poorly-executed television spectacle that left a bad taste here. It was also the feeling that he left something on the table with the way he played in those final games.
With his essay in Sports Illustrated over the summer, LeBron guaranteed that he will not be remembered that way in Cleveland after all. And with his performance last night, he ensured that Game 5 in 2010 will go down as little more than footnote.
It probably wasn't so much about LeBron needing to erase what happened. He's already proven himself. It was more about the rest of us being able to move on from one of our worst sports memories. We no longer have to feel like we were cheated out of something because he failed here, only to reach another level in Miami. Finally, he reached that level while wearing wine and gold, at least for one night.
That is the power of LeBron. One bad game led to four years of heartache, one good one has left me feeling invincible. Life is just more enjoyable when the best basketball player in the world plays for your favorite team, especially when he hits a buzzer-beater and follows it up two days later with 38 points on 24 shots.
I don't know if the Cavs will win the title this season. If I had to bet, I'd put my money elsewhere. There's still no guarantee that they'll even get to the next round.
However, I do know on thing for sure: If LeBron plays like that, they can win the whole thing. It doesn't mean they will, just that they can.
And I guess I know one other thing, too: In the future, when people mention the words "Game 5," I won't immediately think of that game in 2010 and the frustrating memories I associate with it. I have a new Game 5 to remember.