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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Why LeBron James is the NBA’s ultimate leader

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the third quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Credit: Getty Images/ Andy Lyons

LeBron James had just completed an emotional on-court interview after leading his team to the NBA Finals for the sixth straight year. Now, with a smile on his face, James shouted “locker room, locker room” and raced off with his teammates following him.

Of course they did. James is the best leader in the NBA, and he’s still the best player. The spotlight has been on Stephen Curry for his ridiculous shot-making ability, and he deserved to be named league MVP for the second straight year. But James is its MIP — Most Important Player — and has been for many years.

Who would you start a team with right now? The answer still is LeBron James.

Like him or not, no one does more for or means more to his team on the court and off it than James.

He leads by example. He leads with his play and his words. Before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday, coach Tyronn Lue addressed the team, and then James gave a speech, and the Cavaliers responded.

Having been in this position many times in recent years — playing a closeout game with a chance to reach the NBA Finals — James set the tone early against Toronto by attacking. He didn’t want to give the Raptors any life, even if Game 7 would be in Cleveland, so he made sure the Cavaliers were prepared to finish the job in Toronto. His teammates followed him en route to a series-clinching 113-87 road victory.

James finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. It was his first 30-point game of these playoffs, and the timing was right. He knew he had to lift his game and he did.

“There’s only one LeBron James and he makes a difference on any team he plays on,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Everyone in that organization, their level has gone up because he’s there.”

There is no arguing that. Look at James’ career, particularly the last six years. He demands greatness from everyone, starting with himself. His team and teammates are the beneficiaries. They know they can reach lofty heights with James driving the car and pushing them. They don’t want to let him down, and they play that way.

The Cavaliers have had a singular focus this postseason and dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs, going 12-2. Their four wins over Toronto were by an average of 28.5 points. They swept Atlanta in four games in the conference semifinals by a margin of 12.5 points per game.

They will take that focus into the Finals against either the Oklahoma City Thunder or Golden State Warriors — who tied the Western Conference finals at 3-3 Saturday night with a 108-101 victory in Oklahoma City — and have a far better chance of winning it all than last season. The Cavs are at full strength now.

Kevin Love didn’t play in the Finals against the Warriors because of a shoulder injury he suffered in the first round. Already hobbled Kyrie Irving was done after Game 1 because of a fractured kneecap. James had all he could handle just keeping the Cavaliers in the series, but the Warriors had too much and won in six games. Now James will have more help.

James’ critics will point to his 2-4 record in the Finals, but that’s shortsighted and doesn’t truly measure what he has done and continues to do.

Six straight Finals appearances with the Heat and the Cavaliers is a remarkable accomplishment. James is only the eighth player to do that. The other seven all were Celtics who played on the dynastic teams of the 1950s and ’60s.

The Bill Russell-led Celtics had great players and a great team. They reached 10 straight NBA Finals, but to put it in perspective, there were only eight teams for nine of those years and nine teams the last year.

The NBA has 30 teams today. There are more playoff games, more series, so to have the physical and mental toughness to stay sharp, focused and committed enough to win 18 consecutive series in your conference is something for which James should be celebrated.

“It means everything,” an emotional James told ABC’s Doris Burke moments after the game.

Expounding on it later, James said, “To be in a position where I can go out and help a group of guys get to places where either they haven’t been before or been but want to accomplish even more in their careers, it just means a lot. So a lot of emotions were just going through my head at that point in time, talking to Doris, and just appreciating what I’ve personally been able to do throughout my career so far.”

So far. James is 31, finishing off his 13th season, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. He continues to do whatever his team needs as he steers them toward playoff success. He demands the highest level of commitment from his teammates but most of all from himself, as all great leaders do.

New York Sports