LeBron James is going to put it in what will be one more heroic performance in Game 7 against the Celtics. We know this will happen, win or lose. We’ve seen him do it countless times at an age he shouldn’t. That means that for the first time in his career, we can enjoy an elimination game from him without stakes.
LeBron’s legacy is what it is at this point, which has also made him even more enjoyable to watch. You know that video of the two lynx screaming at each other on the road that went around this past week? That’s what people used to sound like after every LeBron playoff game discussing his legacy. It was a tired and annoying habit.
But we came into this season knowing that there was a good chance LeBron wasn’t going to win the championship, not because of his basketball skills, but because of everything around him. The Warriors maintained the same important roster pieces after beating him in the Finals in five games, and Kyrie Irving went to Boston with Gordon Hayward, leaving James’ supporting roster bereft of its top sidekick.
The rest of Cleveland’s roster was aging, and LeBron’s wait on Isaiah Thomas to come back healthy and happy failed. Then there was the “revamped” roster, which ended up not being much better than the one he had earlier in the season.
And yet, here we are. LeBron is one game away from an eighth consecutive Finals.
An argument will be made that LeBron’s legacy actually should take a hit if he loses Sunday night because he’d have fallen to a Celtics team without Irving and Hayward. But the absence of Kevin Love for this final game, a supporting cast seen as his worst in a decade, and the fatigue that comes from carrying his team throughout the postseason (and regular season) makes it hard to argue that LeBron underachieved. You can try to make an argument that a player with seven 40-point games in one playoff run has underachieved, but it wouldn’t be a very good one.
It’s also irresponsible to gloss over the serious talent on the Celtics roster even without Irving and Hayward. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are both top-three NBA Draft picks from the past two years and look like locks to be cornerstones of the Celtics franchise for years to come. Al Horford was also a top-three pick back in the day, and a five-time All-Star (including this season). Sprinkle in Marcus Morris’ defensive prowess, Marcus Smart’s Marcus Smartness, the emergence of 24-year-old Terry Rozier, and a genius coach, and you have a really damn good opponent.
We may be witnessing a changing of the guard. The Celtics have next in the Eastern Conference, with the Sixers a formidable challenger. But we’re also still at a point where LeBron’s not going to go quietly. It’s why he was always going to force a Game 7, and it’s why we still expect heroic performances out of him.
We can’t question his legacy because he’s made rising to the occasion the norm. His 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists in 46 minutes of play in Game 6 is phenomenal. Athletes at his age (33) — or really, any age — aren’t supposed to be able to do things like that. But it somehow felt appropriate given his amazing accomplishments to date. We expected it, and him making that seem so routine is enough to cement his spot in the league’s pantheon, win or lose.
His career resume in elimination games suggests that he’ll rise to the occasion again on Sunday night. In those games, he’s averaging 34 points, 11 rebounds, and seven and a half assists. If he were to perform above those averages, you wouldn’t be surprised by it one bit, win or lose. That’s just what he does now.
That’s why winning the result of Game 7 won’t change the LeBron-MJ debate. It won’t change LeBron’s 3-5 Finals record compared to Jordan’s revered 6-0, but it also won’t change LeBron’s thorough dominance to this point. Imperfection has never looked so good.
At the end of Game 6, LeBron was asked about overcoming Sunday night’s task — a Game 7 in Boston, where the Celtics are undefeated this postseason. He said, “I know what I’m capable of doing, and I’m going to trust everything I put into it.”
No matter what happens in Game 7, we’re going to remember how LeBron left everything he had out on the floor during the 2018 postseason. He went the distance against the Pacers, had his scheduled dominance of the Raptors, and has yet again shouldered a load against a young and talented Celtics team.
Players in their 15th season aren’t supposed to be able to do what he’s doing. But LeBron is also something we’ve never seen before. We’ll enjoy the big performance he puts up, regardless of outcome.
For those of us tired of the endless noise around James’ place in history, that’s refreshing.