One Game, Two Legacies

lebron-james.jpg

Logical or not, two legacies hinge on the outcome of one basketball game tonight.

The defending champion Golden State Warriors have a chance to cap their record-setting 73-win season with another title, cementing them as the best team in basketball history by almost any measure. Success-starved Cleveland and their Cavaliers leans on prodigal son LeBron James to finally deliver a title and, in the process, achieve a Finals first: climb back from a 3-1 series deficit.

Before the confetti from the 2015 championship parade was swept away, the Warriors already convinced themselves their accomplishments were not held in high enough regard. Through no fault of their own, they ran into injury-riddled Western conference teams and avoided both the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers and coasted to a title.

There would be no championship hangover this season. Early in their 24-0 start, some Warriors made no bones about their desire to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls mark of 72-10. It was a welcome injection of drama into an otherwise irrelevant slog of a regular season.

Along the way, Stephen Curry — an unprecedented shooting threat with an adorable family and humble smile — emerged as the face of the league. His size, looks, and style of play make him far more relatable than James, who is simply an athletic freak of nature. Most kids can practice flinging threes from all distances. It’s a little more difficult to work on thunderous tomahawk dunks.

The wave of popularity permeated jersey sales and shoe deals. Not signing Steph is Nike’s biggest and most public misstep in recent memory. For two years, everything came up Curry. Until Thursday night.

LeBron James, fed up with the crotch swipes, the disrespect, and the unending praise for the first-ever unanimous MVP, ripped the spotlight from Curry and single-handedly overwhelmed the Warriors with two commanding performances.

James’ 41 points and 16 rebounds in Game 5 came with a temporary asterisk, as one of the Warriors’ two best defenders was across the parking lot watching baseball, suspended for the groin punch heard ’round the world. But Draymond Green’s return in Game 6 did not, as most expected, seal the deal for Golden State. James followed that performance with a stat line that would impress even Wise LeBron: 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, three blocks, and just one turnover. Now them numbers.

For a quarter-long stretch in the second half, James dominated every single aspect of the game, scoring 18 straight Cavs points and spearheading a defense that led to fast break points and stomped out a patented Warriors run. His passing was magical, his defense the best on the court. LeBron imposed his will over Curry directly and, more broadly, the entire sports world. It was Full LeBron, and it was breathtaking.

Meanwhile, little Riley Curry is acting more mature than her mouthguard-tossing dad and conspiracy theorist mom.

Rest assured, the Cavs comeback will be nothing more than a footnote if the Warriors simply do what they’ve done at Oracle Arena for the last two years: drown opponents in three-pointers and build a lead comfortable enough to sit their stars for most of the fourth quarter. The 52-year weight of a region rests on LeBron’s shoulders. If anyone can stay afloat in the sea of blue and gold Sunday night, it’s him. |ES|

*          *          *

Game 7 of the NBA Finals airs tonight at 7PM CT on ABC. Header image: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images