Final question, final answer, final postgame news conference of these NBA Finals. Kyrie Irving kept going Monday night, the last night of the season, the night the Cleveland Cavaliers were no longer the defending champions. And all he wanted to talk about was his teammate LeBron James.
Kyrie on LeBron. Here you go, unedited and uninterrupted:
“Man, that guy is — I think that some people would say that he’s on the toe of — like he’s on the line of greatness. But that guy is way over. Man, he’s freaking awesome. As a student of the game, it would be a disservice to myself if I didn’t try to learn as much as possible while I’m playing with this guy. Every single day demanding more out of himself, demanding more out of us, the true testament of a consummate professional. And understanding how things work, not only just in the game but off the court, things that matter, just taking care of your body, understanding the magnitude of what the goal is at hand and what steps it takes in order to achieve that goal.
“You can’t skip any steps. And that was one thing that I came to understand, because as a young player, you want everything to happen right now. And ‘Bron’s been in this league for a while now, and he’s seen every which way from on the court, to off the court, to dealing with some of you guys, to dealing with the whole world of just choosing a side. Whether you want to believe in him or not, he’s still coming.
“And that’s the type of guy that I want to be with every single time I’m going to war, because I know what to expect, and you stand your ground, too, with a leader like that. You don’t want to take a step back. You move to the front line with a guy like that, and you want to bring your game up to another level.
“That’s what I’m going to continue to do, because I know that if we continue to be with one another and keep utilizing one another, man, the sky’s the limit. So, I’ve learned a lot and I will continue to, and I couldn’t be more proud of that guy. He left it all out there on the floor, and to average a triple-double in the freaking Finals, man, add that to the LeBron long list that everyone keeps forgetting.”
No player in NBA annals has ever averaged a triple-double in the Finals except James, who parlayed a 41-point, 13-rebound night in Game 5 into 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game over two weeks of superb and sublime basketball that left him with nothing to apologize for and nothing to be ashamed about, including his NBA Finals ledger.
If you spend one minute knocking James for falling to 3-5 in the Finals, you don’t merely know nothing about basketball — you know nothing about sports.
Memo to TV and radio brethren: If you spend one segment eviscerating James’ legacy, may your brain be infested with the fleas of a thousand feral cats.
Kevin Durant is king today, and the Golden State Warriors are deserving NBA champions again. Yet, moments after the confetti stopped falling in Oakland, California, the ‘Bron-Lost-the-Big-One-Again chatter began to grow in disturbing numbers and volume on social media. This was not only low-hanging fruit. It was fermented and rotten, and it smelled worse than Zaza Pachulia’s practice socks. This is the most tired angle of the Finals and has nothing to do with reality. When you look at his numbers, it is actually more interesting, in fact, to break down why Rihanna bailed on the Cavs in their most vulnerable moments.
There was but one time to knock James in the Finals: 2011. He came up small in big moments and repeatedly disappeared in the fourth quarter of a series the Dallas Mavericks somehow stole from Miami. He was even asked by a columnist if he choked during the series, and by the end every bitter soul outside of South Beach rejoiced gleefully that Mr. Decision had gotten what was coming to him. Since then, James had epiphanies on and off the court and stopped worrying about what others thought about his game and concentrated on what he could do about it. And he’s done nothing but brilliantly take teams into June since.
Fact: Except for Games 5-7 against Golden State last year, when James and Irving remarkably delivered the Cavaliers their first title and Cleveland its first major sports title in 52 years, he played as well as he ever has on the league’s biggest stage.
Fact: This Cleveland team was by far the best Cavaliers team he ever played on, better than last year’s NBA champion. James wasn’t undone by his roster as much as the fact that the team with the best regular-season record in the history of the NBA a year ago went out and got the second-best player in the league. The Warriors won this title last July on Long Island, New York, as much as they won it Monday night in Oakland, recruiting Durant to join their forces as if he were a 17-year-old five-star recruit and they were John Calipari. Kyle Korver was a good pickup, but he was never going to compare to picking up Durant in the offseason.
Fact: James has been to two more NBA Finals than Michael Jordan, and he still has as many championships as Larry Bird, two more than Julius Erving, one more than Isiah Thomas and three more than Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Fact: Losing five Finals is not a bad thing, America. James joins select company again (Jerry West and Elgin Baylor) as players to lose five or more Finals. If there were All-Time NBA teams, West and Baylor arguably do no worse than making that third starting five. No one talks derisively about Magic Johnson losing four of the nine Finals he played in, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar losing four of the 10 he played in. West, in fact, was 1-8 in the Finals. No one is knocking Zeke from Cabin Creek’s legacy today. And if they are, West is looking for them to punch them in the teeth.
Fact: Most people reading this are, like me, 0-0 in the NBA Finals — for eternity. They will never get to play in one, let alone lose five. Knocking James is like never having acted in more than a school play and then eviscerating Meryl Streep for winning just three Oscars despite being nominated for a record 20. You can hear a faux disgruntled TV panelist now: “Meryl don’t have that killer instinct on the red carpet. How can you go 3-17 against the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences? Pathetic.”
Fact: It’s frankly amazing that James has been to seven straight Finals with two different teams and eight Finals altogether. The 2007 Cavaliers team that James led to the Finals at just 22 years old is still one of the least overwhelming Eastern Conference champion rosters in NBA history. Anderson Varejao started. Daniel “Boobie” Gibson and Damon Jones played important minutes.
Fact: If James retired today, at minimum he’d go down as one of the three to five greatest players in the history of the game. Pay no attention to the yammering anti-‘Bron crowd. You’ll find that the people who use James’ Finals record to define his legacy as a player are often the same people with other misguided opinions about sports and life. Many of these misguided souls, in fact, took the Titanic over the iceberg in ’12 and Michael Spinks over Mike Tyson in ’88. And while it may be too much to wish them all to be set afire and then have the flames put out with golf shoes, the least they can do is shut their pieholes and let ‘Bron be. James is more interested in what Irving said than what any of us will say.
“Well, for me personally, I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” James said Monday night. “So for me personally I have nothing to be — I have no reason to put my head down. I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.
“So it would be the same if you feel like you wrote the best column of your life and somebody picked another one over you. That’s — how would you feel? You know, so you wouldn’t hold your head down, but you would be like, OK, it’s just not my time.”
At the least, James is at peace with his own performance in these Finals and learned one of life’s best lessons: It’s not his job to worry about what others think about him; it’s his job to worry about what he thinks about himself.