Now or Never for LeBron and the Cavs
CLEVELAND – LeBron James, as he often is, was in control of the music in the Cleveland Cavaliers' locker room. This was after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals here last week, after Kevin Love returned to form, after a complete annihilation of Toronto made the NBA Finals feel like the inevitability it was. The Cavs open at Golden State on Thursday.
The symphonic tastes of professional athletes rarely extend past a month ago, but LeBron isn't your normal young, rich and famous star. For one, he's old school. Second, he's got a hokey, suburban dad angle to him – he's a self-professed fan of HGTV, the Food Network and the "Pitch Perfect" movies. He's also cool enough to cop to it without concern.
Winning a big game called for more than just the latest hits, and besides, what's current that's better than the O'Jays? So the 1972 classic "Back Stabbers" rang through the place, LeBron loudly singing along.
"They smile in your face," James crooned. "All the time they want to take your place. The back stabbers … back stabbers."
LeBron said it was just a great song and wasn't meant to symbolize anything. Moments later the O'Jay's "For the Love of Money" – which Donald Trump used as the opening of his reality show – came on.
LeBron James is headed to his sixth straight NBA Finals. (Getty Images)
LeBron sat there and sang that one too. He was entertaining himself, if no one else.
"I didn't appreciate last year personally on getting to The Finals," James said.
That's not an issue this year. The playoffs have been a blast for LeBron James, a 12-2 record, relatively little drama with a team that is well rested and fully operational – most notably with a healthy Love and Kyrie Irving.
The journey thus far has been enjoyable, but now comes the hard part, the pressurized part, the legacy stuff he signed up for when he returned to Cleveland.
These NBA Finals remain about whether James can deliver a desperate, title-starved city to the ultimate destination. Nothing else will suffice. It's all-or-nothing again, no matter how good the music sounds along the way.
James knows this, he's just trying to take the challenge with less internal pressure, in part because he isn't required to do as much. He's averaging just 36.4 minutes a game, down nearly five minutes from a year ago.
"Just so much was going on in my mind [last year], 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," LeBron said. " … 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."
This is LeBron's sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance, 2011-14 in Miami, 2015-16 in Cleveland. The only other players to do that came from the Boston Celtics' dynasty of the late 1960s and 1970s.
He's a June regular. So saying this might be his last chance, or that a frantic feeling should settle in, is ridiculous. That said, this is his 13th season and while he's only 31, there are miles on the tread. You can tack 192 playoff games and counting to his 987 regular-season ones. He already ranks 42nd all-time in regular-season minutes played and sixth in playoff minutes. Plus, there has been plenty of work for USA Basketball, including three Olympics.
While it's certainly not now-or-never for LeBron to win one for Cleveland, now sure would be a good time to get it done. You get only so many cracks at this, and championship windows – for players and teams – tend to shut faster than anticipated. You never want chances to slip by.
As good as Golden State is, the opportunity is right there.
For LeBron, the sense of drama is amplified by his return to Cleveland, just 35 miles north of his hometown of Akron and where he played the first seven seasons of his career, reaching the 2007 Finals but then bailing to Miami in heartbreaking fashion in the summer of 2010.
LeBron James and the Cavs should have a healthy roster for the Finals this year. (AP)
His time with the Heat proved fruitful with two championships, but in addition to satisfaction and excitement, one of the emotions James said he felt when he finally won his first title in 2012 was relief. This isn't uncommon for the truly great athlete, for whom a championship isn't just a dream, but an expectation that can become a burden when a career drags along without one.
Getting that off your back can be exhilarating, freeing, even life changing.
Only James decided to put the burden back on his back; at least sort of. In returning to Cleveland, which hasn't won a championship in any major professional sport since the 1964 (pre-Super Bowl) Browns, he reset the clock in a way that wouldn't have existed had he stayed in Miami. It also felt like he was coming back to make things right in the town he left behind. Anything less will be unsatisfying.
"I don't really get caught up in all of that," James said of Cleveland's doldrums, which is the smart answer. "We're going to prepare ourselves. Our coaching staff will prepare us, and we're going to go out and give it our all, and we're going to live with the results."
"I know our city deserves it," he continued. "Our fans deserve it. But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We've still got to go out and do it."
A year ago he nearly solo-teamed it to the championship, pushing Golden State to six games while averaging, out of necessity, 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the Finals. During this year's playoffs he's gladly avoided taking over games, using the team's diversity of attack. He's down in nearly every stat, most telling: 9.3 fewer shots per game.
Love and Irving have "been the reason why we've played at such a high level," James said. "They've accepted the challenge. They wanted to get back to this moment."
The moment is here. It's an old, familiar Finals opponent, an old, familiar stage and old, familiar challenge for LeBron James, who's sitting at his locker, singing along to old, familiar songs