By James Duffy, sports editor
Sunday night’s thrilling conclusion to the NBA Finals cemented it: LeBron James is one of the best players to ever grace a basketball court. His only competition is Michael Jordan, and some could argue that LeBron is actually better than MJ. After his superhuman performance in the 2016 series, LeBron earned the honor of Finals MVP, well deserved in a series where he averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.3 steals per game.
LeBron carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to a nearly impossible comeback victory by absolutely dominating three consecutive elimination games. What he didn’t do, technically, was win the game. With the game tied at 89, LeBron missed three jump shots. It was Kyrie Irving who finally broke the tie, nailing a three in Steph Curry’s face to put the Cavs up 92-89 with just over a minute to play, and they held that lead to win. In my mind, this brought back a memory of game six of the NBA Finals in 2013.
LeBron was on the Miami Heat at the time, and his team was trailing the San Antonio Spurs 3-2 heading into game six. The Spurs were desperately clinging to a three-point lead in the closing seconds of the game that would’ve clinched the series. LeBron launched a three with 10 seconds left, but his shot rattled off the rim. Chris Bosh pulled down the rebound, though, and was able to find Ray Allen in the corner, who sank a game tying 3-pointer that forced overtime. The Heat would eventually win in OT and they took game seven decisively, giving LeBron his second championship. If Allen had missed that last shot, there wouldn’t have been overtime or a Game 7. The headlines would all smash LeBron for not being clutch, since he bricked a three with the game on the line.
Much like Irving’s jumper on Sunday, Allen bailed out LeBron and locked up the win. If those two players didn’t hit clutch shots, LeBron’s entire career would be rewritten. He’d have one ring and one Finals MVP, not three of each. Despite all the incredible individual work he had done in both series, it’d be hard to not look at them as failures. He would have been to seven Finals and come away with just one ring. Those two shots are what saved his legacy.
That isn’t to take anything away from LeBron. He is, without question, one of the best of all time, but he lacks an iconic moment. Jordan has “The Shot,” and about a dozen other “shots,” incredible, improbable, eternal moments that anyone can call to mind when thinking of MJ. But what’s LeBron’s “moment?”He’s made hundreds of remarkable plays and knocked down a few thousand shots, but he lacks that one immortalized play.
I have nothing but respect for LeBron, who completed one of the greatest redemption stories in sports by coming home and delivering Cleveland’s first championship. He might be the single best athlete I’ve ever watched, but the two most important shots of his career have come from the hands of his teammates. He can shatter every record in league history, but until he comes through with his own “shot,” a standalone moment frozen in history, he’ll always be number two.