With Kevin Durant Set to Take over NBA, LeBron and the Cavs Ponder Their Reality

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 9, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 08:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to the media during a press conference after practice and media availability as part of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 08, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — The sweatshirt said, "Unknwn." Above the sweatshirt was a serene smile. The man behind the smile was quoting Teddy Roosevelt.

This is how LeBron James, the most scrutinized star of modern times, greeted this uniquely daunting moment: down three games to zero in the NBA Finals, against one of the most talented teams in history, staring at a possible sweep.

By the time James took the stage for his press conference Thursday, the talk shows and Twitter streams were already bursting with scorching-hot takes impugning his fortitude and clutchness and, of course, his legacy.

To this, James grinned an easy grin.

"One of my favorite quotes, when I really stopped caring about what people say, is [from] Theodore Roosevelt, 'The Man in the Arena,'" James said.

That's the one where TR sternly asserts, "It is not the critic who counts," but rather the person in the arena "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood."

The marred faces in this case belong to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the defending champions, who are neither as talented nor as savvy as the Golden State Warriors. The Cavs' title defense could end as soon as Friday night.

As that realization set in, James took the long view, sounding like a man at ease with his place in history, present disappointment notwithstanding. He praised the Warriors' selflessness and ingenuity. He defended their right to add Kevin Durant, a certified MVP, to a team that already had three All-Stars and a championship.

"If I become an owner, I'm going to try to sign everybody," he said, smiling.

And he turned philosophical as he contextualized his current predicament, noting that the Warriors were merely the latest dynastic franchise to stand in his way.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"I think it's just part of my calling, to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty," James said, alluding to Finals foes both past (San Antonio) and present—the Warriorsof whom he noted, "This has been the best team in our league the last three years."

This is James' eighth Finals, his seventh in seven years, and the player we see on the stage today is a fully evolved star, whose place among the all-time greats was long ago secured. He has three rings, the highest scoring total in postseason history and more Finals appearances than anyone since the 1960s.

It's not that the losses don't sting. It's just that James, at 32, understands better than most that the ledger never tells the full story. The Warriors are a historically great team, built around two recent MVPs and two other All-Stars, with the best three-year record ever compiled.

As talented as James is, as the Cavs are, they are simply losing to a team with more cumulative talent.

The simple-minded will chirp about James' record in the Finals (3-5, assuming the Cavs lose), ignoring all context and nuance.

But that is the power of the Finals stage. It intensifies and amplifies and sometimes distorts. It shapes reputations and enhances legacies, even if that term now borders on cliche.

Sixty minutes after James spoke Thursday, another scrutinized star took the stage. He hardly smiled at all. He spoke in subdued tones and kept any deep thoughts to himself. He did not philosophize or quote former presidents.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Kevin Durant, on the verge of his first championship, seemed almost afraid to jinx the moment. Or maybe he was just exhausted from dismembering the Cavaliers over the past eight days.

"It's not about me, it's about our group," Durant said, one of many times he avoided talking about himself, his first Finals run with the Warriors or the prospect of claiming his first championship.

There would be no legacy talk on this day. But no player has done more to solidify his than Durant, who will almost certainly claim the Finals MVP trophy when this series ends. He has been the Warriors' most lethal scorer (34 points per game), their leading rebounder (over 10 per game) and their second-leading playmaker (six assists per game). His defense has been superb. And when the moment required it late Wednesday, it was Durant who delivered the dagger with a pull-up three-pointer that gave the Warriors the lead for good.

Five years ago, James claimed his first championship by powering a Miami Heat superteam past Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Now, after leaving Oklahoma for Oakland last summer, it is Durant's turn to earn that validation.

Yes, he had an MVP award (in 2014) and four scoring titles, but the culture today demands greatness in June.

"Everybody knows how great he is," Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said of Durant, "but to cement his place in history, these are the moments. ... And he's propelling himself among the greats. These moments for him are liberating, because of the work that he's put in, because of the pressures and the burden that he bears being a superstar player, a franchise player."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It's not that Durant's talent was unknown, but he had become almost underappreciated playing in Oklahoma Cityhis cool efficiency overshadowed by the pure ferocity of Russell Westbrook, his domineering, ball-dominating co-star.

Playing for the Warriors, with their joyful ball movement and selfless cast of stars, has let Durant shine that much brighter. Leading the Warriors to a possible title, and perhaps a historic 16-0 runjust 12 months after Golden State's heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Cavsensures Durant will never be underestimated again.

Skeptics will view Durant as nothing more than a bandwagoner, a passenger on the Warriors' joyride. But that ignores the profound impact he's made on this series.

"He's not riding anybody's coattails," Livingston told B/R. "He is leading. He is asserting himself. But to me what's special is, he's asserting himself within the flow of the game. He's not taking away from anybody's game."

As great as the Warriors have beena championship team (2015), a 73-win team (2016)they have been that much better with Durant as their anchor. Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP, is having his best Finals: 28.7 points, 9.0 assists and 9.7 rebounds per game. Klay Thompson is averaging 19.3 points.

"Steph's averaging 28, 9 and 9, and we're not even talking about him," Livingston said, "like nobody has a thought of him being MVP. And that's not a bad thing. It just shows you the type of special talent that he is, and that both of them are, really, because they can both play with each other. They both give to each other without taking, and you can't speak that way on a lot of players."

That's the Warriors way. That's what drew Durant to Oakland in the first place. And that harmonic convergence has forced the Cavaliers to confront their frailties.

Jun 4, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) dribbles the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) and forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second half in game two of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Man
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors are not only more talented, but more selfless and in sync. They have more assists per game in the series (31.3 to 19.7), more passes per game (302 to 258), more potential assists per game (55 to 42) and more assist points created per game (73 to 48).

"They work well together," James said, admiringly. "It's not one guy on that team that's selfishly looking for himself and not for the team."

The Cavs see it, too.

"They're the best I've ever seen," one team official said of the Warriors.

The Cavs understand the challenge. They know catching the Warriors will require significant changes this offseason. They need length and athleticism on the wings, a higher basketball IQ all around. If that means trading a core playerKevin Love or Tristan Thompson, perhaps even Kyrie Irvingthey will surely consider it.

Nothing will be off the table, because a team built around James has only one goaland, for the foreseeable future, only one rival to overcome.

     

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and BR Mag. He also co-hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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