TORONTO — The emotional floodgates cast wide open, the meaning of LeBron James‘ seminal night could be felt with every puddled footstep through the Cleveland Cavaliers’ postgame locker room following a rousing 113-87 win over the Toronto Raptors to punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
The Cavs enjoyed this one, to be sure, embracing the Eastern Conference championship trophy with desire, rather than disdain and drenching each other in their celebration with what was available — water bottles, ice buckets, whatever — as they literally soaked up the moment.
The party coordinator was none other than James, breaking from the thousand-yard stare he usually affixes to his career accolades and savoring what just went down as he silenced one of the toughest road arenas he ever stepped foot in.
“I know,” James told ESPN.com when he was told that this type of response was wholly unlike him; when reminded that his stock answer has always been that he’ll sit back with a bottle of wine and reminisce about his achievements with his friend and confidant, Maverick Carter, some far-off day. But never in the moment. Not James. Not the man whose enough is never enough.
“I know,” he repeated.
What changed? What brought about this shift in perspective that had him choking up during his on-court interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke after becoming the first player in 50 years — fifty — to make it to a sixth straight Finals.
“I don’t know what happened,” James said as he made his way out of the Air Canada Centre after sucking all the air out of it with his masterful 33-point, 11-rebound, six-assist, three-block performance. “It’s just a feeling. I just remember last year, understanding the tough situation that we were about to get ourselves into with Ky [Irving] being hobbled, Kev [Kevin Love] being out, Shump [Iman Shumpert] being hobbled, Delly [Matthew Dellavedova] being hobbled — I knew it was just going to be a tough, tall task.
“And this moment right here, I’ve been in this league for 13 years and I can’t continue to not appreciate what I’ve been able to accomplish, what my guys have been able to accomplish and I guess that’s what came over me. So I just got very emotional about it.”
There was good reason for him be overwhelmed. Here he was, two championships, four MVP trophies and more than a thousand games played already to his name, unlocking a level of play that in some ways was better than he has ever played before.
James finished the series against the Raptors shooting 61-for-98 in six games. The 62.2 percent mark from the field represented the second-most efficient playoff series out of the 36 he has competed in, falling just short of the 62.7 percent he shot in the first round in 2013 (which was a four-game sweep against a forgettable Milwaukee team, not a grind-out series with a berth in the NBA Finals on the line).
Everything about James’ play against Toronto was dominant. Yet nothing about it was forced. It was a stark contrast to his six-game performance in the NBA Finals last June, without the help of a healthy Irving or Love. He shot just 39.8 percent in the series, causing his agent, Rich Paul, to admit at one point that James’ efficiency was “out the window.” Yet he was still praised for it, even earning four of the 11 votes for Finals MVP despite losing to the Golden State Warriors.
Some suggested it was “peak LeBron” — the best we’d ever see out of one of the best ever. And then he got Irving and Love back and he appears to be ascending much higher.
“They just can’t key in on me as much like last year in the Finals, having some of our weapons out,” James told ESPN.com of the improvement. “Defenses can’t key in on me and I’m able to play basketball downhill and even with them double-teaming me a lot in this series, I just stuck to my game plan. Not forcing anything, getting to where I wanted to get on the floor, trusting the film sessions, trusting my game and those guys allowed me to be efficient.
“I put in a lot of work. I mean, you know that. I put in a lot of work in my individual game because I believe if I’m at the top of my game, these guys will benefit and then I benefit from them. I benefit from these guys being back at the top of their games too, so it works hand-in-hand.”
When James said he had a “personal” game plan for Game 4 against the Raptors after Cleveland lost its first game of the playoffs in blowout fashion in Game 3, many assumed that James would revert to the guy who swallowed up every possession like he did against the Warriors. It turns out his “personal” game plan was really more about getting the most out of the rest of Cleveland’s personnel, not about himself.
People around him will tell you, this postseason is a culmination of all the basketball James has experienced in his life. “He’s at peace,” his longtime trainer, Mike Mancias, told ESPN.com shortly before Game 6. “This is team basketball. He has help, and he knows it.”
James has always been a pass-first type of guy, ever since his AAU days, but there was always an outside pressure to prove he could do the other things that the greats before him made their bones on — to score like Michael Jordan, to want the last shot like Larry Bird, to attack the hole like Charles Barkley — rather than just play his game. He got over that in Miami, finding validation that, yes, his way was good enough to make him a champion. And he spent his first season and a half back in Cleveland trying to spread that gospel to his younger teammates.
His way, while proven, was burdensome to teammates who wanted the recognition that they have plenty to give to help him, too.
“I think with this team, we got such a veteran group, he doesn’t have to be as much, I guess, vocal in terms of getting guys along and bringing us up,” Tristan Thompson said. “There’s not much words that need to be said.”
In other words, he needed to trust. And once he did that, everything started to fall into place to the point where James has become so confident in this same group he started the season micro-managing that he declared they were “destined for greatness” during their second-round sweep of Atlanta. Cleveland’s sublime postseason, a 12-2 demolition of the East, has been great so far. But James’ statement would ring hollow with a failure in the NBA Finals against either the Warriors or Oklahoma City Thunder.
With such a challenge ahead, some would say the Cavs’ celebration on Friday was shortsighted. But when you live for the moment, and the moment is indisputably transcendent, why worry about the future?
“LeBron, you can just see — I think, anyways — he has a certain calmness to him,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert told ESPN.com. “Sort of that calmness, confidence, leadership. LeBron James, he doesn’t bite his nails anymore. I don’t know if anybody ever noticed that, but he doesn’t. I think that’s for a reason. He just feels like he’s the veteran leader. … So, we got to get four more.”
The way to end a drought is to drench the land with water, right? James and the Cavs just might have given a glimpse of what the end of Cleveland’s championship drought could look like with a wet and wild locker-room celebration in Toronto.
“There’s definitely a different feeling,” James said at the postgame podium, flanked by Irving and Love. “I didn’t appreciate last year myself personally on getting to the Finals. Just so much was going on in my mind, knowing that Kev was out for the rest of the season and knowing that Ky was dealing with injuries all the way from the first round.
“I just didn’t appreciate it. It’s definitely a different feeling. Having these guys right here at full strength, having our team at full strength, and the way I feel personally, I appreciate this moment, to be able to be a part of it and to be there once again.”
And to perhaps someday soon be somewhere he, nor any other pro sports team has been in Cleveland for 52 years, with four more wins.