By now the thought has surely ocurred to you. After watching enough replays of LeBron James’s stunning, game-winning shot to wrap up Game 5 of the Cavaliers’ series agains the Pacers, it’s impossible not to recall one of James’s earliest buzzer-beaters.
That happened in 2009, when LeBron James was 24 and still searching for his first championship. The similarities between the two shots are coincidental, of course, but I think they are instructive when taking stock of the things LeBron has been doing this year, at age 33.
The callbacks 33-year-old LeBron is making to 24-year-old LeBron don’t stop at that shot. Here he is again, carrying a collection of mediocre-to-bad teammates farther than they have any business going by doing everything a basketball player can possibly do to win a game. The game-winner and the preceding block—yet another throwback to a more recent bit of heroics—are the highlights, but Young LeBron was all over the court last night. Take this sequence, in which he fired two of the most gorgeous kick-out passes you’ll ever see, to two shooters who rewarded him with clanked shots:
Swap out J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver for Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, and we’re right back in the summer of ‘09. LeBron finished the game with 44 points, eight assists, and 10 rebounds. He played 41 goddamn minutes, a team high.
The fact that this is even possible, that LeBron James is the same player, doing the exact same things he was doing nine years ago, is as much a testament to his singular greatness as his championship rings are. LeBron played 82 games this season and averaged 27-8-9 while shooting 54 percent from the field. In 2009, he played 81 games and averaged 28-7-7 while shooting 48 percent from the field. In this series against the Pacers, he’s averaging 37-11-8 and playing almost every minute of every game. When he was 24, he averaged 35-7-9 during the playoffs.
There has never been a better time to just sit back and marvel at LeBron Fucking James. In fact, I demand that you do so! This guy has been doing exactly this, being the best player on the floor every single night, for almost the entirety of his 15-year career. He’s right at the point where his career trajectory should be starting its downward turn, and yet he’s somehow better than he’s ever been.
All you can hope for when an athlete who amazes you starts to age is for them to do it gracefully. Pieces of their game are doomed to be plucked away by time, but the good ones know how to adapt and evolve in order to become effective yet diminished versions of their former selves. Look to LeBron’s contemporaries for examples: Dwyane Wade is old and slow, but still has just enough juice to steal one playoff game. Carmelo Anthony isn’t what he used to be, but he can still—actually, uh, let’s not talk about Melo.
Great players who have played far fewer minutes than LeBron James find their games covered in smudges, and yet LeBron’s manages to exist without tarnish. He’s still bulldozing through entire defenses; he’s still blocking unreachable shots; he’s still firing passes into hip pockets; he’s still winning games at the buzzer. He’s lost nothing. While his former rivals and running mates are busy easing their careers into the grave, LeBron is still digging them for others. When he eventually stops, we’ll all be worse off for it.