LeBron Isn't Like Mike, Never Will Be Like Mike and That's Working for the Cavs

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterMay 27, 2016

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) looks to pass against Toronto Raptors' James Johnson (3) during the first half of Game 5 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — LeBron James took over, as is his wont.

He reached down, tapped "play" and the sweet stylings of the O'Jays filled the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room. Soon, James was singing along to "Back Stabbers"a curious choice, sure, though there was no need to psychoanalyze his selection. Really, James just likes the O'Jays.

Nor was there any need Wednesday night to psychoanalyze the Cavsno matter how many doubts they had raised in recent days.

This was a team in perfect harmony, with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving providing the points, and James the playmaking, in a 116-78 rout of the Toronto Raptors. With that, Cleveland retook control of the Eastern Conference Finals, three games to two.

Crisis averted.

Game 6 is Friday night in Toronto.   

The momentary tie in the series had triggered the usual overwrought reactions, as if no contender ever lost consecutive road games (they have), and as if the Raptors were not a legitimately good team (they are).

Along with the panic came the cliched cries for James to "take over," to summon his inner Rambo and single-handedly disembowel the entire Raptors roster. Same as it ever was.

It's 2016, James is a 13-year veteran, a four-time MVP, a two-time champion and yet we are still debating his mental makeup and demanding he "Be Like Mike."

James is one victory away from his sixth straight NBA Finalsa feat last achieved by the 1960s Boston Celticsand yet people are still trying to squeeze this era's greatest star into another man's mold.

We are swimming in advanced stats and SportVu data, yet we remain stubbornly beholden to scoring totals to determine worth. We want our basketball stars to dominate with dunks and jumpers. Count the pointzzz.

May 25, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during introductions prior to game five of the Eastern conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

It's an understandable expectation, born of decades of Jordan highlights (and Bird highlights and Kobe highlights…), and it persists because we know what James can do when the mood strikes. We have seen him drop 45 points on the Boston Celtics (in the 2012 playoffs), 49 on the Orlando Magic (2009) and 48 on the Detroit Pistons (2007).

Yet LeBron has always been more Magic than Michael, forever seeking the smart play, the crack in the defense, the open teammate. If he has deviated on occasion (see the 2015 NBA Finals), it has been out of extreme desperation, an absence of better options.

That is not the case now, even if Love and Irving and J.R. Smith are, admittedly, not always the most reliable options. Going full Jordan remains, rightfully, a last resort.

"He can do that if he chooses," Cavaliers veteran Richard Jefferson told B/R, "but that's just not who he is naturally. He's not a Kobe. He's not a guy that does that naturallylike, 'I'm going to dominate the game by scoring.'"

"He wants to dominate the game in different aspects of it," Jefferson said. "The way we view it is that we just have to feed off of him. But it's fortunate to have Kevin, to have Kyrie, to have guys who are able to just score a ton of points. That helps his job very much."

The problem for the Cavaliers was not whether James could dominate, but whether his chosen sidekicks could do their jobs. Irving had gone 14-of-40 from the field, and Love 5-of-23, in Games 3 and 4.

That left James with two choices: "take over" and come out firing in Game 5, or trust his co-stars. True to form, James chose the latter. He had four assists in the first 10 minutesconnecting with Irving twice, Smith and Love once each. By the end of the first quarter, Love and Irving had combined for 23 points, and the Cavaliers had an 18-point lead that would only grow larger.

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk during the game against the Toronto Raptors in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 25, 2016
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

This is how James dominates. Not by forcing shots or commandeering the offense, but by skillfully measuring a defense and exploiting the full arsenal around him.

"We didn't get to this point in our season by me taking over every game," James said. "I kind of laugh at it when I hear from you guys, when I do my media availability, people saying, 'Take over the game.' My presence on the floor is much bigger than what numbers talk about."

James referred to Irving and Love as young superstars whom he trusted to carry the scoring load.

"So you don't just throw in the kitchen sink because we lose two games or we didn't play as well as we could," he said. "There may be a time when I may have to have one of those big games. But until then, just relax."

Last week, James moved into third all-time in postseason assistsleapfrogging Jason Kidd, placing him just behind Magic and John Stockton.

James is arguably the greatest playmaking forward in basketball history, and he can dominate with the pass alonemuch like the legendary point guard he just displaced in the rankings.

"Oh, 100 percent," said Jefferson, who spent six-and-a-half seasons with Kidd in New Jersey, making the Finals twice. "If you look at some of the passes that [James] is able to make, that's all J-Kidd did. That's how he impacted the game. We look at it from the perspective of: If he's able to help us, if he's able to impact us, that makes life easier."

James still finished with 23 points Wednesday (in just three quarters of work), along with six rebounds and eight assists.

The other big assist came from Channing Frye, the Cavaliers' veteran three-point specialist who gave a pep talk to Love a night earlier. Frye cited his own playoff nightmare—a 1-of-20 stretch in the first three games of the 2010 Western Conference Finals when he was with the Phoenix Suns. Frye steadied himself and made 13-of-25 shots over the final three games, though the Suns lost to the Lakers.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"He basically just told me no one's immune to the NBA playoffs," Love said. "These type of things happen. You have to keep fighting through it."

As Love spoke across the room, James kindly turned down the volume on his personal sound system and tamped down his own singing.

The Cavaliers will inevitably stumble again, and the bleating masses will scream once more for LeBron James to take over, to take every shot. But James has proved time and again that his way works best. Thirteen years in, he would still rather lead an ensemble than sing solo.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. ET, on SiriusXM Bleacher Report radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.