CLEVELAND — We are watching an unprecedented storm, a LeBronathon powered by a Jamesnami, a magnum opus that might not happen again on a championship level in any sport. “I’m the best player in the world,” LeBron James says, and you’d be a dope to argue, even if your name is Stephen Curry and you’ve just shot the Warriors to within a victory of an NBA title while admirers from Russell Wilson to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Steve Nash to Common are tweeting raves.
Steve Kerr compares LeBron to American Pharoah. Draymond Green says LeBron is “not God” but pauses before he says it. Michael Jordan still sells more shoes than LeBron but won’t declare himself the greatest, diplomatically telling a Paris media site the other day, “You can’t compare eras. I will never have an opportunity to play against LeBron in his prime, and he never will have the opportunity to play against me in my prime.” Which means everyone — including the greatest player of all time — is bowing down to the author of the most dominant solo act in basketball history.
There is a movement afoot, in fact, to reward James with the Most Valuable Player award in these Finals even if he and the Cavaliers lose the series. What he has done with a diluted cast, sapped nearly dry by the absence of injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, is a revelation beyond the usual LeBron revelation. He is averaging 36.6 points in the five games — almost 40 percent of his team’s total — and he’s averaging 8.8 assists and 12.4 rebounds in a oxygen-defying 45.6 minutes a game. Not even the not-so-secret architect of the current Warriors, Jerry West, produced such a complete deluge of numbers as the only player from a losing team, the 1969 Lakers, to win Finals MVP hardware.
I don’t hesitate acknowledging as a San Francisco writer that James would have won this series with a healthy Irving and Love at his side. Maybe a rematch next June, correct? But let it be said right here and right now, before the voting takes place either tonight in Quicken Loans Arena or Friday night at Oracle, that the current LeBron phenomenon also is an imperfect storm when it comes to the Finals MVP quotient.
A player cannot lose a championship and still be most valuable when the victorious opponent has worthy candidates. Why should Curry or Andre Iguodala, both positioned to win the award with a memorable close-out game, be punished because of James’ unique circumstances? Whether it’s a scripted plate on the league trophy or a line in an almanac or Internet page forevermore, the MVP should be the man whose performance in a Finals was most symbolic, memorable and title-securing-vital in defining the championship team that carried the sport’s 2014-2015 season.
If they win in Game 6 or 7, that team would be the Warriors, who would have a stunning 83 victories, third-most in an NBA single season behind only two Jordan-ruled teams that included, yep, Kerr. And while everyone involved in this remarkable ascension, from the management suite to the locker room, might think it’s cool that no Warrior be MVP in what has been a team-driven Finals of various heroes and moving parts, it wouldn’t be right to have anyone but a Warrior win the trophy to cap one of the most successful NBA seasons ever.
Think about this. Should we really remember the Finals for James — who, as a 6-9, 260-pound behemoth, was among those who allowed the Warriors several critical offensive rebounds in the final minutes — if, say, Curry finishes off Game 6 with a 35-point flurry in a hostile building? Or if the all-encompassing Iguodala, whose steely leadership and big-moment glue prevented the Warriors from an early Finals crash, continues to do what he does every game: make a signature play or two when it is urgently needed, followed by some sort of demonstrative strut or gesture or even a smile to remind everyone in the Bay Area and all the young players in Warriors uniforms that everything is going to be OK?
Iguodala has been the one guarding LeBron much of the time. When LeBron missed the shot at the end of Game 1 regulation, who smothered him? “If I make that shot,” James said earlier in the series, “Kyrie doesn’t get hurt.” I am pointing out these flaws, however few, to demonstrate that James has not been ALL THAT in every critical moment. If he makes the Game 1 shot, maybe he wins the series. Was he really most valuable in that scenario?
“The mental challenge is you’re not going to give up no matter what,” the veteran said after Game 5 of his ongoing James challenge. “You might feel some fatigue. I felt like there were some moments when he got the best of me on a low block, made some tough shots. But mentally, you’ve got to say you’re going to get a stop every opportunity you get, and you’ve got to keep just grinding it out.”
“If he gets 40, he gets 40. That’s why he’s LeBron James,” Green said. “You can go throw a triple-team at him, and he’ll probably still get 40, but as long as you make him work for those 40, then you’ve got to be satisfied with what you do.”
It’s an insult, as Kerr surely will mention to his team, that people are more impressed by James in a desperation context than by the Warriors as they’ve taken control of the series. Deflating as it would be to lose to James in his one-man-gang mode, it’s also troubling that observers are so fixated on James that they’re missing the in-progress growth curve of a young team that could have several more Finals in them. Sure, Curry shot poorly for most of two games. No, they didn’t look ready for the moment the first three games.
“We were completely getting outworked, outhustled, outdogged, however you want to put it,” Green said. “They were doing that. In order to win games at this level in the NBA Finals, that can’t happen.” But the Warriors were impressive in climbing from their abyss, and they did so with James as a member of the opposition. Would Timofey Mozgov have made a late difference with his size in Game 5 if coach David Blatt didn’t have him on the bench? I seem to recall someone not boxing out on Harrison Barnes when he flipped the ball to Iguodala, who put in a high-arching layup for a seven-point lead and then did his monster-mash walk across the court.
The culprit? LeBron.
“I don’t put a ceiling on what I can do,” James said. “I mean, I gave up two offensive rebounds, had a couple turnovers, a couple miscues defensively, and I’ve got to do better.”
Now, if he boxes out on Barnes and gets a couple of those rebounds and Cleveland wins Game 5? Then we’re giving James not only the MVP trophy, but a parade, a “Sportsman of the Year” cover, a couple of states and his choice of skyscrapers. But just as he missed the shot in Game 1, he was flawed at the end of Game 5. We are not expecting perfection from the man. But if you’re going to flip traditional Finals protocol and give him the MVP award while dissing the Warriors, you’d better make damned sure he is entirely deserving of the award and that you’re not just staring at his mesmerizing stat lines.
Before boarding the flight home, James left us with two snapshots. First he sulked on the court, then he switched into Big Bad Wolf, self-aggrandizement mode. He told us he was confident because he’s simply the best player in the world. Then he said of the series, “We’ve got enough to win it. We protect home, we come [to Oracle on Friday]. We’ll worry about Tuesday first. But if we protect home like we’re capable of doing, we force a Game 7.”
The question is whether the Warriors can be rattled by such noise. One quick answer: They ran James and the Cavs out of the building in Game 4, the night James was bloodied and dazed after an Andrew Bogut cheap shot and accidentally flashed his penis to 18 million ABC viewers and countless droves on the Internet. The Warriors have established a precedent. Why not a reprise, with James and the Cavs facing the same one-day-off fatigue that led to the Game 4 rout?
“The closeout game is always the hardest game in every series, but particularly in the Finals,” said Kerr, who won five of them as a player. “There is a lot of emotion. You’re right there on the cusp of something, but you still have to get the job done, and in this case we’ll be on the road against a great team. It’s going to be hard. It’s just the way it is.
“What I’m excited about is I think we can play a lot better, and that’s what I told our team. I think we can do much better.”
As I’ve noted often, the Warriors have benefited from an extraordinary run of good fortune and karma. They avoided major injuries when the Cavs and other contenders did not. They didn’t have to play the Spurs and Clippers, the teams best equipped to beat them in the playoffs. They’ve had plenty of time off in the postseason. They watched Irving, one of the sport’s 10 best players, shatter his kneecap.
Still, it’s not how lucky you are, but how you cash in. And here they are, 48 minutes from an unlikely dream, and if Steph Curry finishes this wonderful season the way he defined it — shake, fake, shiver, shimmy, crossover, breakdown, stepback, splash — how in the hell do you give James the MVP trophy as the child and his followers are partying till dawn in the heart of LeBron’s kingdom?
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.