OAKLAND, Calif. — Eleven months after penning his poetic homecoming letter, reigniting the passions of Northeast Ohio, LeBron James sat stoically in front of an NBA Finals banner, stroked his beard and tried to navigate the gap between hopeful rhetoric and a sobering reality.
The four-time MVP had just lost a spectacular duel to the reigning MVP, Stephen Curry.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost for the third time in five games to the Golden State Warriors, this time 104-91, and now James was confronting the possibility—perhaps the likelihood—that this happy homecoming would end in anguish.
With one more victory—Tuesday in Cleveland, or Friday in Oakland—the Warriors can claim the 2015 championship. They have the superior talent, the superior depth and the superior versatility. That much is evident.
From under a tightly pulled, black leather Cavaliers cap, James projected defiance.
"I feel confident," he said, "because I'm the best player in the world. It's that simple."
His point is indisputable, even if everything else about the Cavaliers is suspect. And the flimsiness of James' supporting cast simply proves his premise.
If the Warriors take the title, they will have done so by overcoming one of the greatest individual performances we've ever seen, from one of the greatest players to grace the stage.
On Sunday, James and Curry traded three-point haymakers down the stretch, until James had produced his second triple-double of the series: 40 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists. The first came with a 39-point performance, in Game 2.
"Those are not triple doubles—these are lottery numbers," Steve Smith of Turner Sports said.
The 40-point game was James' third of the series—a feat achieved in the Finals by only four others: Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal.
Through five games, James has averaged a Jordan-esque 36.6 points, a Shaq-like 12.4 rebounds and a Magical 8.8 assists.
In the course of this series, James has not only shredded the Warriors' vaunted defense, but he has also crushed all manner of conventional wisdom.
A superstar needs co-stars? James lost two, and he has the Cavs here anyway.
You can't win without depth? The Cavs have none.
A contender needs a second option? Not if the first option is LeBron.
James has even rendered analytics moot, dominating the Finals while posting some of the worst efficiency ratings of his career.
Not even fatigue has slowed him. James is averaging a series-high 45 minutes, 33 seconds per game.
James has made everything we know, or thought we knew, irrelevant. Obsolete, even.
And he might force us to reconsider another longstanding belief: that the Finals MVP must come from the winning team.
"We haven't seen a player do what he's done, on a winning team or not," said former All-Star Grant Hill, now a Turner Sports analyst. "They're undermanned, and what they're doing is a result of what he's doing. He's been the best player consistently, throughout the series."
In the 46-year history of the Finals MVP award, only one player has been honored while losing the series: West, in 1969, when the Los Angeles Lakers lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics.
West was indeed extraordinary, scoring 53, 41, 24, 40, 39, 26 and 42 points over those seven games. That was enough to earn the award, over the Celtics' Bill Russell and John Havlicek.
Every Finals MVP since then has come from the winning team, a tradition that is difficult to ignore. That might change this week. The more James has dominated this series, the more fans and commentators have suggested the award should be his, regardless of the outcome.
"What LeBron's doing, I wouldn't have a problem with that," Hill said. "What he has done, what he's been forced to do, it's conceivable (he could win). It could happen.…I would have no problem with that. And there's been a precedent."
Working in James' favor is that no single Warriors player has defined the series. As of Game 4, Golden State's leading candidate would have been Andre Iguodala, mostly for his defense against James—along with solid, across-the-board statistics. Curry had been merely good, not great, until Sunday night, when he broke out for 37 points and hit 7-of-13 shots from three-point range.
For the series, Curry is averaging 26.2 points, six assists and five rebounds—MVP-worthy numbers, though nowhere near what James has produced. Then again, Curry's Game 5 performance was critical, perhaps tipping the series for good, and that context cannot be ignored either.
"Stephen Curry is the MVP," Smith said. "He has played well enough. Iguodala has played well enough. It has to come from the winning team."
Smith said James has been the best player in the Finals—"It's not even close"—but he cannot see him winning the award if the Cavaliers lose. "The MVP has to come from the team that wins it," he said.
Only James could even force us to have this discussion after four decades of relative uniformity. But only James could take a roster as tattered and makeshift as the Cavaliers' and turn it into a title contender. This era is rich with superstars—Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Curry—but none of them could do what James has done this postseason.
Consider Sunday's game, when James scored or assisted on 70 of the Cavaliers' 91 points. He joined West as the only players with a 40-point triple-double in the Finals.
"What he's done in these games, I don't think anyone ever thought that was possible," Hill said.
And yet, as he sat stone-faced on that podium late Sunday, James mused, "Hopefully, I can do a better job" in Game 6 on Tuesday, as if there were much room for improvement.
"I don't put a ceiling on what I can do," James explained.
He cited, with detail, two offensive rebounds he gave up to the Warriors. He cited his turnovers, all two of them. He cited his defense, which he said could improve.
"Like I said, I don't put a ceiling on what I'm capable of doing," James said. "I know I'm shouldering a lot of the burden."
From the moment he announced his return to Cleveland last summer, James has shouldered more than a workload. He has carried the city's aspirations, the dream of ending a 51-year title drought.
James and his fans might not get the fairy-tale ending they envisioned, at least not in Year 1. But he has provided inspiration, nightly thrills and some truly historic box scores. That may have to do for now.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.