By Paolo Del Rosario
LeBron James’ greatness has been a recurring storyline throughout the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 playoff run, and he has been dominant enough to potentially add to his legacy even if his team loses to the Golden State Warriors.
James has been so good in this year’s Playoffs and has raised his game even higher in the Finals. That’s why he could become this year’s Finals MVP even if the Dubs lift the trophy in the end, and there is precedent to it.
All the way back in 1969, player/head coach Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics and Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers locked horns for the championship. In the final game of the best-of-seven series, the Celtics upset the Lakers at The Forum in Inglewood, 108-106.
Hall of Famer John Havlicek led Boston in the series with averages of 28.3 points and 11.0 rebounds per contest, including 26 markers, nine boards, and five assists in the penultimate game of the Finals. But it was Lakers’ Jerry West who ended up receiving the nod for what was the league’s first ever Finals MVP award.
West was dominant in the 1969 series, putting up per game numbers of 37.9 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in 43.9 minutes. In the Game 7 loss, West even put up a gaudy triple-double of 42 points, 12 assists, and 13 rebounds before watching Boston celebrate on his own home turf.
The difference between West and James is that West had help that season in the form of Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor (18.0 points, 10.3 rebounds per game in the series) and Wilt Chamberlain (11.7 points and 25.9 rebounds per game in the series). While that wasn’t enough to get the chip, that was enough to push the series to seven games.
Fast forward to 2018, after two games in the Oracle Arena it looks like James may be unfortunate enough to be walking in West’s footsteps. The Finals MVP is decided by a panel of 11 media members. So if he is dominant enough to warrant the votes, then he could actually take home that award.
In the 2018 Playoffs, LeBron has put up huge numbers of 34.6 points, 9.0 assists, and 9.2 rebounds per game. Two games into the championship series, the Akron, Ohio native has found a way to surpass those numbers. On the biggest stage of the NBA, LeBron has elevated his play even further to post per game numbers of 40 points, 10.5 assists, and 8.5 rebounds in the first two match ups against the Warriors.
— NBA (@NBA) June 4, 2018
James may be required to take the lion’s share of the workload just to give the Cavaliers a chance against the Warriors, and that was almost true in the series opener. The King went bonkers in the first game, going for 51 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds off 19/32 shooting.
We all know what happened in the end of regulation in that game, but let’s not let JR Smith distract us from what James had to do to keep Game 1 within reach.
The second game wasn’t as close, but James still went for a near triple-double of 29 points, 13 assists, and nine rebounds through 10/20 shooting from the field as the Cavs fell again to the Warriors. He attacked the basket relentlessly to suck in the defense and find open shots for the rest of the Cavs. Cleveland was within striking distance until Curry put the game away in the fourth period.
The 33-year old also netted the highest usage percentage amongst all players on the floor after the first two meetings, and still shot an effective field goal percentage of 60.6 against the Dubs.
After Game 1, even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took time to tip his hat to James.
“They (Cleveland) have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I am not sure anyone has ever seen before, when you consider everything he is doing,” Kerr said in the post-game press conference.
His performances in the first two games of the series also put him up with big names in Finals history, racking up the fourth highest point total through two games in the NBA Finals with 80 points. The record holder for that particular statistic is coincidentally Jerry West with 94 points in the 1969 NBA Finals.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to see the Cavs squeeze every ounce of greatness out of James, which could possibly result in them stealing a game against the Dubs in Cleveland. Based on what Playoff LeBron has been like this year, we probably might see some eye-popping stat lines once again when all is said and done.
But will that be enough to deny Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and the rest of the Hamptons Five a Finals MVP trophy?
That remains to be seen, but right now LeBron James is seemingly on the path to emulating Jerry West’s achievement. West had Hall-of-Fame caliber teammates on the way to forcing Boston to a seven-game championship epic, while James arguably doesn’t have the type of help needed to overcome the Warriors in their own series.
So far, James’ excellence has been the constant for this Cavaliers team, and his teammates serve as the bellwether for success as a group. If the Cavs want to challenge the Warriors, it is the likes of JR Smith, Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and the rest of the team to rise up and emulate their leader’s awe-inspiring exploits.
James appears to be headed to a quicker defeat if things don’t change soon, but his super-human feats could at least be recognized.
LeBron may end the season with a trophy, but it might not be the one that he would want most.