CLEVELAND: There’s a huge photo of LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home arena with the superstar’s giant-sized outstretched arms wide enough to carry the entire team, just as he’s doing in the NBA Finals.
Another maestro performance on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) saw “King James” score 40 points, grab 12 rebounds and pass out eight assists to spark the host Cavaliers over Golden State 96-91 to seize a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series with game four Thursday in Cleveland.
The victory reinforced the growing sense that this is a career-defining moment for James, two wins from realizing his life’s dream of turning his hometown club into a champion.
The 30-year-old forward’s emotional and exhausting heroics could produce one of the NBA’s greatest feats, a spectacular achievement given the loss of two Allstar teammates to playoff injuries.
“You would be hard pressed to find a guy anywhere, anytime that can give you the kind of all-around performance and leadership that LeBron does,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said. “He really has willed his guys to win. That’s what a champion does and obviously he’s a champion.”
Cleveland lost Allstar forward Kevin Love to a separated shoulder in the opening playoff round and Allstar guard Kyrie Iring to a fractured left kneecap in the finals opener against a top-seeded Warriors side featuring NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry and a deep bench.
“We know we have to get more out of ourselves than maybe is even humanly possible sometimes, but that’s the situation,” Blatt said. “We have a chance to do something very special and if it requires us to go above and beyond, that’s what we’ve got to do. It’s a matter of facing up and manning up.”
James is averaging a record 41 points plus 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the NBA Finals, baffling the Warriors by driving to the hoop, sinking fadeaway jumpers and hurling passes to unguarded teammates.
“He obviously is one of the great players in the league. He affects every single play,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Some great players you have to defend a certain action. With LeBron, it’s everything that happens.”
Kerr, who won three of his five titles as a player alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the 1990s Chicago Bulls, has seen nothing like James. Asked if he is today’s top athlete, Kerr said, “Can you find another one? Maybe American Pharoah,” citing the new Triple Crown horse racing champion.
“He’s arguably the best athlete that any of us have seen in terms of size and speed and strength. I mean, he’s a force. There are other guys who you can compare over the years, Scottie and Michael come to mind, but LeBron is so unique because of that powerful force and how smart he is, just the impact he makes with his physicality on the game.”
James was a high school teen star in nearby Akron, taken first by Cleveland in the 2003 NBA Draft and four years later had the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, where San Antonio swept them.
Needing to learn how to become a champion, James departed for Miami in 2010, heartbroken Cleveland fans burning his jersey and scorning his name. James led the Heat to two NBA crowns and two finals losses in four seasons.
“Experience is the greatest teacher in life and I was able to learn a lot of things in the four years I was in Miami,” James said. “A lot of things have fallen into place for me. Every experience I’ve had I can draw from it. That has helped me become who I am today.”
Last July, James returned to Cleveland, vowing to bring the city its first sports champion since the 1964 NFL Browns.
“I think for him it’s the pride of the city on his back,” said ex-Miami teammate Dwyane Wade.
James has excited NBA fans for years with his high-leaping acrobatic moves, but this jaw-dropping run appears to be one for the ages.
“Part of his greatness is the ability to size things up quickly, to slow the game down for himself and make a good decision,” Blatt said.
Stripped of his main supporting cast, James has inspired role players to elevate their game. James gave teammates Apple watches in a pre-finals team meeting, building bonds and confidence that saw the club through setbacks.
“When you’re able to come together off the floor, it helps you come together on the floor,” James said. “That’s one of my leadership styles.”