OAKLAND, Calif. — Whatever you're thinking about LeBron James right now, stop it.
The mental gymnastics required to place him anywhere outside the top five greatest NBA players of all time isn't worth it. Monday's 129-120 loss to the Golden State Warriors—the Cleveland Cavaliers' second NBA Finals loss in three seasons to these Dubs—gives ammunition to the army of LeBron haters, emboldening them to continue their quest to deny James his legacy. At this point, the scalding hot takes have ceased being merely irrational. Now, they're just a pedantic cause for eye-rolling.
With 41 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists, James once again led Kyrie Irving and the basketball equivalent of a dentist office treasure chest filled with nothing but floss to the Finals. Game 5 was a contest for the ages, a performance that most professionals a decade James' junior couldn't even fathom, let alone pull off.
James finished the 2017 NBA Finals averaging a triple-double—33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 10.0 assists. That's a feat that's never been accomplished in NBA Finals history. When asked to reflect on that, Irving said "Add that to the LeBron long list that everyone keeps forgettin'."
Oh, and there's that dastardly, All-Star Game-worthy dunk off the backboard in Game 4.
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If not for Kevin Durant's Game 3 magic, the James-led Cavs might have even won two contests against one of the best basketball teams in league history. In another world, that's a Finals MVP-caliber performance. You might even be able to make the case for LeBron winning the Finals MVP.
(I'm not saying you should, but you could. Basketball Reference shows James' per-100 possession averages for this postseason are 39.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists.)
Besides that, he recorded 1.6 blocks per 100. That's good enough for a 29.8 PER, only slightly off last year's history-making performance.
Seven Finals in a row. Eight total. Three titles. Sorry that they ran into the Megazord from Power Rangers this time around.
"I left everything on the floor every game, all five games," James said to reporters. "I just try to do everything to just try to help this team win and more. For me to go out there and for the guys that allowed me to be the leader that I am and allow me and trust me that I'm going to make the right plays and I'm going to do the right things and have the right intention, that's a compliment to my guys; it's a compliment to the 14 guys that allow me to do that and the coaching staff."
I ask the LeBron detractors: What could he have done differently? Shoot more? Pass less? He was 19-of-30, which gave him the most shots of any player on the court. When your bench accounts for seven points in a closeout game, you're going to shoot a ton. That's four fewer points than the bench had personal fouls. Should he have been more aggressive? Try asking him that after his fast-break throwdown in the face of Durant that nearly (and probably should have) resulted in the series MVP's third foul in the first half. He hardly shrunk from the moment.
The miles, the minutes and the intense scrutiny have not slowed James down. His resolve and his hunger have yet to be betrayed by his body. The question now is not unlike the one he faced after a thorough decimation at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. How do you respond?
In 2015, it was different. The smoldering corpse the Warriors left in their wake that year wasn't whole. No Love, no Irving. Today, Irving's offensive greatness is unquestioned, but Love looks less and less like a pivotal piece of this team.
Despite rumors to the contrary, it's hard to fathom James leaving Cleveland again. After this heartbreak, it would be especially devastating to the fanbase. But he can't be asked to carry this load again any more than he should have had to in Miami after 2014. How this Cavaliers team (or any other franchise in the NBA) can hope to challenge the Warriors in the next few years remains its biggest dilemma.
"I need to sit down and figure this thing out," James said at the podium when asked about his future. "Pretty much all [the Warriors'] big-name guys are in their 20s, and they're showing no signs of slowing down."
The thing is, neither is LeBron James. His excellence is unmatched. He's putting together individual performances without equal. Whether or not that body of work equals or surpasses that of Michael Jordan seems almost beside the point. The rings-first mentality, the obsession with Jordan's unblemished record in the Finals diminishes the magnitude of what James has done.
"Man, that guy is—I think that some people would say that he's on the toe of, he's on the line of greatness," Irving said Monday night. "I couldn't be more proud of that guy."
If anything can lift this team back up, to give it the tools necessary to push forward and challenge the Warriors, it's the bond between these two superstars. What pieces will surround them next year is in question (cue the Dion Waiters "I'm Coming Home" video), but the foundation is there.
"I know that if we continue to be with one another and keep utilizing one another, man, the sky's the limit," Irving said.
Right now, that sky seems miles away. But James has been there before, and it would be foolish to think he can't get back there.