On a day that couldn't be more perfect, without a cloud in the sky for my entire drive up, I encountered Lakewood in the middle of an art festival. Detroit Avenue was lined block by block with booths displaying paintings, crafts, baked goods, and clothing. Sidewalk to sidewalk, the street was packed with people. Then, it turned. Without warning, the sky opened up. Every bit of beauty and vibrant color that filled the street was quickly hidden away under vinyl tents. Once smiling people huddled under anything they could find to avoid the sudden downpour with their cars parked ever so far away. It led me to the classic Cleveland greeting once I was able to claw my way into a more than packed Deagan's for our Cavs Zine meeting celebrating the pairing of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving: "Man, we really can't have nice things, can we?"
Fast forward to June. After watching the Cavs struggle, come together, go 33-3 down the stretch, lose Kevin Love, and dominate the East, the finals were upon us. Irving, who struggled through injury and was in and out of the lineup for the better part of two previous series, entered game one as a complete unknown. What ensued was one of the best games of his career. A complete end to end performance that made it feel like the Cavs could win this thing. When he somehow managed to block Steph Curry's layup and setup a game winning attempt it felt like that was the moment that defined the series. How quickly things change.
"And Kyrie Irving is hurt! Limping up the floor."
-Mike Breen ABC
It isn't often that sports can ruin my mood, but this felt exactly like getting punched in the stomach, or finding out that Christmas has been canceled. As quickly as hope was built, it was extinguished. Cleveland, right? We joke about it all the time. The "misery montage" that every major channel must get a huge check to play any time there is more than four minutes to fill talking about a Cleveland sports team just got one more reel. This thing was over.
"If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."
Enter LeBron. In an almost fitting turn of events, if the demons that haunt this city were going to be exorcised, it was going to be all on LeBron. The best player in the game was suddenly a sympathetic figure. He tarnished it some by refusing to call himself the underdog that he truthfully was but the story of the the 2014-15 edition of LeBron had come full circle. Gone were loud whispers of "Has he lost quite a bit?", "Is he loafing?", "Did he make a mistake?". In their place, we all wondered aloud if he could make this a series, much less win a game. In many ways, this was the purity of sport. Why so many of us played, and why we all love to watch. One of the game's greatest teams squaring off against one of it's greatest players. America lives for an underdog story, and rarely is that underdog one that can achieve heights that he alone can reach on the basketball court.
What followed was a clinic. LeBron began the game attacking the rim. Posting Harrison Barnes as if he were a small child. Running around Draymond Green as if he were a traffic cone. Post moves on Andre Iguodala? Check. Step back threes over outstretched defenders? Check. LeBron finished with 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists.... in the first half. This was only the second time in his career LeBron finished a half with those totals. Every bit of brilliance was on display, as the pace was ground to a complete halt.
As much as people talked about it being all on LeBron, perhaps none of us really imagined that it would actually end up almost 100 percent on his shoulders. As the Warriors adjusted to his scoring, he recorded all 6 of his first half assists in the second quarter, a no look leave for Timofey Mozgov. Cross court bullets to the open and waiting hands of James Jones and J.R. Smith. An alley-oop to Mozgov. It was all on display.
Slowly, what felt like defeat and hopelessness changed. LeBron was turning in the kind of performance that made it feel like anything was possible. Never before had LeBron, or anyone for that matter, approached the 41% usage rate that LeBron averaged over the first two games of the finals. LeBron's physical peak is behind us, but it is still awe inspiring to see one of the games best athletes and floor generals packed into a 6'8 frame, hilariously outgunned, and basically given the ball and free reign to go figure it out.
The second half was not as successful. LeBron shot 4-21, including the overtime period. It just isn't possible to hold the ball that much, shoot close to 80 shots across two overtime games, play great defense, and be a dominant rebounder without wearing down some. While his shot left him and his lift betrayed him - James had several shots blocked in second half - James' fingerprints were still all over the game, to the point where I didn't notice just how many shots he missed until looking at the box score later. You know the classic LeBron heat check wasn't missing though.
Yes, this was LeBron, without a dribble, hitting what looked and felt like a game-sealing shot from 30 feet.
From the other side, I reached out to Bram Kincheloe of Golden State of Mind, to see how it looked from the other side: (Note: Thanks to Bram for providing these great words, and apologies to you reading, for having to wade through my writing just to get to his -RM)
LeBron James' game two performance was breathtaking. It was stupefying. It sent my friends and I into a terror-filled shame spiral, foot-stomping around a Brooklyn rooftop, tearing out hair follicles and cursing the sky.
LeBron treads that line between unworldly and ultra-worldly in a way that we've never before seen. He exists on a plane that is so thoroughly his own that a lot of people almost undervalue what he can do. We know that he is capable of superhuman feats, so when he doesn't deliver we get angry. Curse him, curse the team. Feel we deserve more.
And this is not just for Cavaliers fans. I have been one of the few who stood behind LeBron through all the ups and owns -- all the tension created by that fateful decision. I stood behind him while so many others cursed his name ("Oh, LeBron is a sellout. LeBron is a narcissist. LeBron should die. Suck it LeBron," etc) for one simple reason: LeBron James can do things that no other human being alive in this moment on planet earth can do. He is capable of exertions that far exceed what we once thought was physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. For this reason, LeBron has always been and will always be must-watch TV. He is a force of passion. He is the driver of the train towards the unknown.
After the Cavaliers lost game one, and more importantly, lost Kyrie Irving, many Warriors fans thought that the series was over. Hell, most people around the world probably thought that the series was over. It's one thing to have lost Kevin Love at the beginning of the playoffs. But Kyrie? No way in hell.
Pundits and pontificators were jumping over each other to ring the death knell of the Cavs. And quietly, with eyes set on the goal, quietly LeBron James prepared for game two knowing that he would have to do everything. He would have to begin and end the Cavaliers' attack. He had to be, as he said after the game -- tired and exhausted but still with the fire in his eye -- he would have to be "everything."
And so he bullied his way into the paint. He out-muscled whoever the Warriors threw at him. He danced around defenders, stepping back and nailing shot after shot. He whipped no-look passes across court into the waiting hands of able teammates. He stepped into the fire that is Oracle, and proclaimed himself King for a night.
He OWNED us.
LeBron gave us what we all secretly or not-so-secretly craved: he gave us a glimpse of the beyond. He did something that only he could do. And did it on the world's biggest stage.
Though he inevitably fell short, we will all remember his performance -- especially in game two -- forever. And as a pure fan of the game of basketball, I am indebted to him for showing us all that extra level. That extra gear.
Thank you LeBron. Even though you scared the shit out of me and I thought the Warriors were going to lose every game forever after that and holy jesus you are good at basketball, thank you."
As the buzzer sounded, Tristan Thompson tossed the ball to LeBron. In one move he caught it, and slammed it to the ground, belting out a primal scream that aligned perfectly with fans all over Cleveland. The mix of sadness of frustration from just hours earlier replaced with that feeling that we're all chasing watching these games. The feeling of awe, and that truly anything can happen. Only one player in history (Jerry West in 1969) had come close to a triple double rivaling LeBron's totals of 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists before.
It didn't work out the way we wanted, and we may never get that close again (hopefully that isn't true!), but we may never see a performance like that again. Like the man said: Thank you, LeBron, for taking us to the other side, if only for a night.