While James' four regular-season MVP trophies (not to mention those other two championships) mean he has long been a player with nothing left to prove, he performed as if his legacy depended solely on the outcome of this Finals series.
Perhaps for an irrational minority, James needed to do this. Maybe he even talked himself into believing the baseless and misguided criticism leveled at him for so long—he's a choker, he's disloyal, he's a dubious leader—actually had merit. Or maybe he's just this great.
Rewind a mere few days, and absorb what James and his Cavaliers faced: a historically insurmountable 3-1 deficit in the Finals against the winningest regular-season team of all time.
Don't forget Cleveland's title drought, more than five decades long. Also include the daunting odds of three straight elimination games against a squad that hadn't lost three consecutive contests all year, the first-ever unanimous MVP looking to finish off a storybook run and the crushing weight of the promises James made upon his return two summers ago.
Staring all that down, shouldering an immensely heavy burden, James fired off back-to-back 41-point games and closed the whole thing out with a triple-double.
He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks and 2.6 steals per game, leading both teams in each category. That's not normal, per ESPN Stats & Info:
His 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists gave him yet another Finals triple-double, a feat we might as well start naming after him based on this note from Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:
And those numbers came spectacularly—from start:
No wonder, then, he couldn't quite wrap his mind around the enormity of it all:
In the wake of the LeBron James Performance We'll Always Remember, a handful of footnotes can't go unnoticed.
Kyrie Irving buried the dagger with 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a game that seesawed back and forth until that moment. His triple put Cleveland up by three, and with Golden State's offense on fumes—the Warriors failed to score after the 4:39 mark of the fourth period—all that remained was one more James free throw to sew up the final margin.
Irving's shot, and his overall offensive excellence on the biggest stage, can't be ignored.
Nor can the Warriors' season-long brilliance. Mention of their 73 wins will now always come in tandem with disappointed and/or judgmental "yeah, buts." And it will sting Dubs fans forever that Stephen Curry's inability to shake Kevin Love on the final meaningful sequence was a microcosm of the series as a whole: a transcendent talent hobbled by injury and fatigue, struggling to conjure magic from a supernatural well that had run dry.
Warriors fans duly will lament head coach Steve Kerr's trust in lineups and reserves that didn't deserve any:
And they'll always wonder what might have happened if Draymond Green (who posted a brilliant 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists Sunday) hadn't gotten himself suspended for Game 5. For what it's worth, Green isn't wondering. Per Marcus Thompson of the Bay Area News Group, he's certain of the cost of his absence:
Seeing Golden State laid low like this was enough to force some philosophical soul-searching. It always felt reasonable to have faith the Warriors would sort out their issues. That they'd make shots. That they'd defend. That Curry would find his lateral burst and win his team the one game it needed to secure the title.
The problem with faith in this instance is that it's a poor stand-in for evidence.
All the recent evidence suggested James was the best player in this series and that after Game 5, his team was the one playing more like destined champions.
And perhaps the most fitting aspect of James' crowning performance was that it wasn't a single moment. It wasn't a key shot or a chase-down block…though he had plenty of both.
Instead, it was sustained dominance—dominance that sometimes seemed reserved, even quiet. He defended, shot when appropriate, found teammates willingly, turned in highlights and subtler big plays throughout. If this series win solidified James as one of the greatest two or three players we've ever seen, it's perfectly appropriate that he did it while others—Curry, Green, the Warriors—distracted us by being bigger storylines.
It's a lot like the way James' career has played out.
For roughly a decade, he's been the best player in the league. And we've been distracted by other angles, seduced by fresher fare.
James shouldn't have needed to do this. He shouldn't have been in the position where proving himself was necessary.
His career didn't need a new pinnacle; the heights he'd reached were already lofty enough.
He ascended anyway.