A lot of incredible, spectacular shit went into Game 7. The balance of all this shit tilted slightly in favor of the Cavs, and that was always going to be the case in any scenario that had the Cavs actually winning—in a strictly player-for-player accounting, they are very clearly less good than the Warriors. In order to win, Cleveland’s players would need to do things that are better than what they normally do.
Some of this—like Kyrie Irving’s big-swinging-iron-dick-and-balls pull-up game-winning three—would be stuff we knew they could do. Some of it—like Kevin Love hanging on for dear life during the 14 seconds in which the entire basketball universe centered around him, at his very most vulnerable—wound up being stuff we thought (or knew!) they couldn’t do. For my money, the best and most important play in the game and series was one in which the only player on earth capable of pulling it off found the will and then summoned the energy to actually Do The Shit.
Look at this here:
I’d take it even a step further: this, to me, was the greatest individual athletic feat in a game of basketball that I have ever seen.
The stakes make it something. A championship was in the balance. If Bethlehem Shoals is to be believed, the endlessly boring and pointless LeBron vs. History debate was in the balance. If Dave Zirin is to be believed, the future and wellbeing of an entire geographic region were in the balance. Certainly the specific tilt of the Great Takepocalypse was in the balance. I’m sure LeBron, too, had a sense of stakes that were greater than even an NBA title—the euphoria and relief radiating off of him in the aftermath were unlike anything from his previous championships.
But forget the stakes. Consider the circumstances! LeBron played another 2,700 minutes this regular season, the 11th time he’s crossed that threshold in his 13 seasons in the NBA. He’s now topped 38,000 regular season minutes, good for 42nd all-time. He’s played the 7th-most minutes per game in NBA history, at just under 39 a night. Add another 8,300 or so playoff minutes, including 822 in these playoffs. Consider that every one of the minutes he’s played in his career has been as the best and most important player on the floor. Consider that the last 10,533 of those minutes—those accrued over the last three seasons and playoffs—have come after what most have agreed was the crest of LeBron’s athletic prime. Consider that the last 291 or so of those minutes came against the best regular season team in the history of the NBA. Consider that the last 131 or so of those minutes came after his team fell into a 3-1 deficit, one from which no team has ever recovered. Consider that the last 47 or so of those minutes came in the biggest game of his career, on the road, in the loudest arena in the league. Consider that, with two minutes left in the game, he’d spent the previous 289 minutes accruing more minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks than every other player. On both teams.
Now. Let us return, for a moment, to the stakes. Unlike Kyrie’s incredible game-winning shot and Love’s heroic defensive stand, the result of this play not swinging Cleveland’s way would not have been an acceptable status quo—Kyrie misses, the game is still tied; Love loses Curry, and the game is tied again, at worst. But if Iguodala drops in that layup, the dog-tired and outgunned Cavs are down a bucket, on the road, with precious few possessions left. Make-believe narrative stakes are interesting, sure, and are hard to ignore, but something plenty huge enough was on the line with the Warriors sprinting ahead in transition and LeBron recovering from the opposite corner, many lengths behind the action. Just then, the game and the series and the season had to be salvaged from the brink of disaster.
In bars and homes and chatrooms all over the world, the idea had been floated for three quarters that LeBron had been playing a measured game in order to preserve Maximum Destroyer of Worlds LeBron for the fourth quarter. As ABC came back from commercial break, I texted a friend that it killed me to think that the whole world was now watching for this Super LeBron to arrive—as usual, it would mean that the stakes for LeBron were much higher than for everyone else. If anyone else on the floor failed to shoot lasers from their eyes down the stretch, they would merely recede into the swirling action of an intense basketball game. Not LeBron! For him, falling short of the incredible would be viewed as a specific and lasting failure.
And, shit, man, for most of the fourth quarter, Super Maximum Destroyer of Worlds LeBron was nowhere to be seen, and as the game seesawed down the stretch, it was impossible to not wonder if LeBron hadn’t frozen up in the moment. You can kinda trace the outline of this in a way that makes sense, if you’re trying: For all his brilliance, LeBron isn’t a natural shooter or shot-maker, the way Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving are. What you’re waiting for, when you wait for LeBron to go nuclear, is either for him to play outside of his natural comfort zone, or for him to suddenly develop that crazy mind-meld where he starts moving his teammates around with his brain. Those are both supernatural states—not just more LeBron, but LeBron Plus. He can do it, and he has done it, but that’s not Natural LeBron, the facilitator, the free safety, the starting gun.
It turned out LeBron’s heroics down the stretch never needed to be supernatural, and it’s great and amazing and wonderful that things worked out the way they did. Instead of being LeBron Plus, LeBron was Peak LeBron. Whatever he’d reserved for the purpose of saving the day, he reached back for it with the action racing ahead of him to the cup, and only the unexceptional J.R. Smith to slow the charge. VVVVVVRRRRRROOOOOOOOOMMMM!!! Within a couple driving strides—he crossed half court with the shot clock showing 21; he began his leap from the restricted area with the shot clock showing 20—LeBron closed the gap like only a few humans on earth can, and with Iguodala spinning it wide off the glass, beyond the reach of Smith, LeBron attacked the ball at the kind of angle and with the kind of velocity and violence that shouldn’t be possible from anything short of a cruise missile.
The combination of effort and will and vision and timing and otherworldly athleticism required to make that block in that moment is uniquely LeBron’s. The Block happened in the 3,520th minute of his age-31 season, at a point in the playoffs when everyone on both teams—none of who have remotely the same kind of miles on their odometers—was running on fumes. The whole thing should be impossible. I don’t know how many more of these LeBron has in him. Probably not many. We are lucky to be alive during the LeBron Era, is what I’m saying.