When Lebron James plays basketball in Cleveland, it creates a buzz that can’t be replicated. On Tuesday night we saw that the player who’s engrossed Northeast Ohio since before he could drive can still do so over 20 years later.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron will always be intrinsically connected. Their stories have diverged and coalesced over the decades, but one story can’t be told without the other.
The Cavs will never escape LeBron’s shadow the same way the Bulls have never left Michael Jordan’s. There are figures who transcend their medium and reach audiences mere mortals could never. LeBron has done that for the Cavaliers and basketball in ways that we only hoped he could when we saw him first play in the distinctive green and gold of Saint Vincent-Saint Mary.
The 11 years he spent in Cleveland can’t be forgotten. The memories, both painful and euphoric, are conjured up anytime he takes the stage in the city.
Now finally, for the first time in decades, the Cavs are building something real that does not revolve around Lebron James. Today’s team sits third in the conference, and they have not even scratched the surface of their potential. The development that began last season has been taken to another level with Donovan Mitchell in town.
Any good Cavs’ team will unfairly be measured by what came before. This team is fun, but is it as fun as watching LeBron lead a team to the playoffs for the first time in 2006? This group looks like they love being around each other like the 2009 team did. Does this team have the potential to be as good as those Finals teams from 2015 through 2017?
Comparison, though, is the thief of joy. But comparisons are just a natural part of processing previous experiences. This team will never be able to evoke the same feelings of those peak LeBron teams. And that’s okay. But, they can take the torch from LeBron and run.
Kyrie Irving was the appointed successor. He was the number one pick directly following The Decision, but the front offices never put him in a position to succeed. Irving was given a second chance with the return as LeBron tried to pass the spotlight over to a show Irving never wanted.
This new nucleus, led by Mitchell, does want that.
Tuesday night’s game wasn’t just one of 82. It was a chance to show to a national audience that the organization doesn’t need LeBron to save them. There’s no better way to do that than by beating him in his former backyard.
Despite the leap forward last season, the Cavs weren’t able to prove that they were ready to move on. Cleveland jumped out to a 14 point advantage in the first quarter before giving it all away by halftime. LeBron slammed the door shut in the fourth as he notched 13 points and 4 assists in the final frame.
The script was set up perfectly for James to do that again. The Lakers grabbed the lead in the beginning of the fourth quarter after fighting back from a double digit deficit. But unlike last season, the Cavs have their guy.
The kid who grew up idolizing LeBron and was in the room for The Decision made sure this story was going to end differently. Mitchell hung 17 fourth quarter points on the Lakers while LeBron watched. His game sealing three was followed by him figuratively and literally telling him this isn’t his house anymore.
"Go home. Go the f--k home."— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 7, 2022
Spida talking his talk after the big three pic.twitter.com/NZ7JU2sEz5
Mitchell was the one listening to a chorus of MVP chants from the Cleveland faithful while James stood feet away.
“It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone who was arguably the greatest at anything,” said J.B. Bickerstaff ahead of Tuesday’s matchup. “As a player, you see that, you feel that when you’re walking around the community, you see everybody in the jerseys and those types of things. It’s not easy.”
Mitchell followed up with a similar sentiment afterwards. “It’s really cool to be here and in this situation. As a kid, you were literally watching games in front of a TV and now you’re a part of it. He set a standard. We just want to honestly go out there and try to win a championship.”
The Cavs will never escape LeBron’s shadow. That’s the price you pay for having arguably the greatest athlete of the generation on your team for 11 seasons. But, this group, led by Mitchell, isn’t running away from the challenge.
The Cavs appear to have the torch barrier to light their way to the next era.