Not five minutes had passed since tipoff at the Moda Center in Portland when LeBron James turned the corner at the top of the three-point line and went barreling toward the hoop. As he picked up speed, Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic began to drift away from his man and toward the lane to help.
LeBron rose a step or two inside the free-throw line. By the time Nurkic put both hands in the air and started the process of leaving his feet, LeBron's right hand already held the ball parallel with the rim. Nurkic, now fully aware of the futility of his levitation, tried to turn his left shoulder away and stop his contesting of the shot, but it was too late. LeBron descended, smashing the ball over Nurkic and through the hoop with a sound that could only be described as the noise the Hulk's fist makes punching a concrete wall.
That dunk is unforgettable, but the reaction of the Cavs bench is equally worth revisiting. Cedi Osman leaped off the bench and yelled. London Perrantes looked like he was riverdancing, kicking his legs to and fro. Jordan Clarkson collapsed as if he'd fainted, and JR Smith sprinted up and down the sideline, unable to contain his excitement.
The experience of not just watching LeBron do something out of this dimension on the basketball court but having courtside seats for it every night is a phenomenon that has had a profound effect on some of LeBron's newest teammates.
Osman arrived in Cleveland to begin the 2017-2018 season after spending the past four years playing professionally in Turkey. Just 22 years old, Osman was in awe of LeBron after a single game.
"The first game against Boston, he had 29, 16 and nine," Osman recalled, reciting his points, rebounds and assists. "After the game, he was like, 'I'm not in good shape.' That was the moment that I was like, 'Uh...what?' That was one of the strangest moments. Like, 'Wow, 29, 16 and nine, and then you're like I'm not in good shape.'"
Like Osman, it didn't take long for Larry Nance Jr. to have his "LeBron Moment" after being acquired by the Cavs in a trade at the deadline. Nance dropped what remains his Cavaliers high in points in a win against Detroit on March 5, pouring in 22 to go with 15 rebounds. After the game, though, he couldn't believe how much attention he was getting.
"It was a big game for me. But everybody is blowing up and making all this noise, like, 'Oh my God, Larry won us this game. Larry, Larry, Larry,'" Nance said. "And I'm like, 'Did you not see that [LeBron] had 31, seven and seven?' Those type of numbers he puts up every night and is underappreciated for it. How you can put up 31, seven and seven and be unnoticed is absurd to me. That was my moment of, people just take this for granted. And it's crazy."
George Hill is sitting at his locker before a recent game, slumped in his chair as he scrolls through his iPhone. Soft-spoken and focused, there's an air of serenity that surrounds him at all times, a sort of envious calm. But when asked if he can recall his first "LeBron Moment" now that he's his teammate after spending his formative years doing battle against him in the NBA playoffs, Hill's brow furrows. He unfurls his arms, and that calm is suddenly broken.
"S--t, one play?" Hill asks incredulously. "I can't sum it up in one play. Every game I've been in so far being here, he still seems to amaze me. The level of play he's playing at, the amount of miles he has on his body, and the performances he still puts up night in and night out is just remarkable."
Since the Cavs have added an ever-changing cast of characters to try to fit alongside LeBron this season, it's easy to forget Jose Calderon was one of the team's first acquisitions this past offseason. A 12-year NBA veteran, Calderon has been a surprisingly steady hand for a team that seems constantly mired in chaos. Though he's played with seven teams during his stint in the NBA and passed the ball to hundreds of players, sharing the court with LeBron has made for a wild 13th season for Calderon.
"There's one of those [crazy] moments every other day," Calderon said. "Sometimes he'll throw a behind-the-back pass in practice and you're like, 'Ah, OK, I guess this is normal.' I think sometimes we're so used to [his play] we forget about it. That's why we talk about other guys. He does too much, man. It's amazing."
Calderon has also noticed the profound effect LeBron's presence has had on many of the team's recent acquisitions, especially some of the younger guys like Nance, Clarkson and Rodney Hood.
"When some of these guys were in high school and college, he was already in the league," Calderon said. "[LeBron's] a guy that you looked at, you'd be watching those games, and now you're in the same room and practicing with him. I guess sometimes you realize, 'OK, I'm here!' I get that feeling. I see a lot of guys, every time he talks, they're like, 'OK, he's saying something, and it's important and we better listen.'"
If LeBron's teammates had to agree on a single moment from him that felt otherworldly, though, the dunk over Nurkic is the consensus. They talk about it with bewilderment, as if it were something they had never seen and will never see again.
"I was in the locker room [when it happened]," Nance said. "But I watched it live [on TV], and everybody was kind of quiet. Like, 'What the hell?' And then we had to rewind it, like, 'Oh my God, he really dunked that ball.' Just the way he turned the corner and picked up speed.
"We had to ask [LeBron], 'Where do you put that in your [all-time] dunks?' He said it's probably top five. So then we spent the rest of the half debating what his top five was. The power he dunked it at, 15 years in, it's unprecedented."
Perrantes, the man who can be seen doing some sort of Irish jig after LeBron threw it down, talks about the experience as if it caused him to black out.
"It was unreal. Something that I've never seen before," he said. "To be right in front of it, right there on the court, it was kind of crazy. You can't hold [your emotions] in. You don't know what's going on."
Even Hill admits LeBron's dunk over Nurkic stirred something inside him.
"Yeah, that Nurkic dunk was something else," Hill said with a laugh. "Something where the clock turned back. Something that makes you say, 'I didn't know he could still do that.' That's how special he is."
And to think, it's still the regular season. The playoffs are where LeBron does some of his best work. For his teammates like Osman, though, LeBron's status is already solidified.
"He's a legend."