OAKLAND, Calif. — On the one hand, LeBron James spent the past season doing everything in his considerable power to earn consideration as the greatest NBA player of all-time even over the likes of Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Russell. On the other hand, James and a supporting cast that Saturday Night Live recently parodied as a bunch of nobodies are huge underdogs against the defending champion Warriors when the Finals open Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
If the oddsmakers are right, it’s likely James’ record in the Finals will drop to 3-6 when it’s all over. But the sheer magnitude of what he has accomplished in his 15th NBA season at the age of 33 to reach the Finals for the eighth straight year with a team that traded Kyrie Irving in the offseason before undergoing a midseason makeover at the trade deadline is beyond description.
Game 1 of the Finals will be a career-high 101 games this season for James, who is averaging 34.0 points, 41.3 minutes and an efficiency rating of 37.1 in the playoffs to lead everyone in those categories. Throw in 9.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks per game and seven 40-point performances, and it’s obvious the Cavaliers only reached the Finals through the dint of James’ will.
On media day Wednesday, James was asked if he is redefining the prime of his NBA career. “They always kind of talked about the NBA prime is like 27 to 31, 32,” James said. “That’s if you’re lucky. I just never really bought into that. I’ve always told you guys that I don’t really have a ceiling. I want to just try to maximize as much as I can and be as good as I can.”
Recalling a conversation after one playoff game with sideline TV reporter Casey Hubberth, who asked him how he still can maintain such a high level, James said, “I told her this is the best I’ve felt in my career. I don’t know if she believed me and I don’t know if you guys believe me, but I really felt that. And I continue to just play at an all-time-level standard for the rest of this season. Hopefully, I can continue it in this Finals also.”
It will take everything James has and more to upset the Warriors. Irving is long gone, and All-Star forward Kevin Love’s status for Game 1 is uncertain because he still was in concussion protocol on Wednesday. But the Warriors should know better than anyone not to take James for granted after he led the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 Finals deficit two years ago to win the title.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted how teams dared James to shoot from long range earlier in his career in order to pack the defense in and protect the rim. “Contrast that to now where he’s shooting fadeaway threes from 30 feet to close games out,” Kerr said. “It is pretty remarkable when you’ve got a guy who already is considered one of the top few players to ever play the game who can make that much improvement late in his career.”
Understanding all the turmoil the Cavs endured this season, coach Tyronn Lue added that James “wanted to lead by example for these new guys who came in, playing all 82 [regular-season] games and playing at a high level.”
Veteran forward Jeff Green, who signed for the minimum in the offseason to play with James and reach the Finals, said, “It’s hard to put into words. It’s amazing to watch. It’s amazing to be a part of. That guy has done everything for us. He’s playing outstanding, amazing, phenomenal basketball in year 15. Collectively, his playoffs have been truly remarkable.”