BOSTON — Preparing for the latest elimination game of his remarkable career—the latest Game 7 in this incredible run of brilliance—LeBron James seemed…different.
Those who have been with him for many of these referendum games, these moments that would somehow define his career one way or another, hadn't seen him quite like this before.
"Calm," a team source told Bleacher Report.
To those who have witnessed the better part of this 15-year masterpiece, which he continued carving Sunday night by leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to an 87-79 victory over the Boston Celtics to advance to his eighth consecutive NBA Finals, this was a departure.
They'd seen him appear "nervous" before elimination games in his days in Miami, a person who was around him in those days said. They'd seen him utterly focused in these moments during his second stint in Cleveland, as he was when facing a 3-1 deficit against Golden State in the 2016 Finals. At that time, a pregame check-in with LeBron yielded few words and a thousand-yard stare.
And up until Sunday night, that comeback against the Warriors had been James' signature achievement—a whirlwind of force and fury that he unleashed despite being asked to play 40-plus minutes in every game but one.
James didn't want to hear any of this, no matter how many different ways it was asked. But getting this Cavaliers team to the Finals—after the trades, the team meetings, long stretches with little or no consistent support and, finally, the loss of All-Star Kevin Love for Game 7 against the Celtics—may have been his finest hour.
"It's six seasons in one," James said. "It was five, but now it's six. I guess this is the last chapter for our team this season. It's been a whirlwind."
"Cedar Point" is what James compared it to, referring to the amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, that calls itself "The Rollercoaster Capital of the World."
"This has been one of the most challenging seasons I've had," James said.
But that's as far as he would go. James loathes when people who have not been "in the arena," as he puts it—meaning, mere mortals who have never played in the NBA—question his team, his teammates, his coaches or his chances. In the wake of achieving what seemed painfully obvious throughout this tumultuous season to be an impossible task, it was James' natural inclination to stand up for "my guys" when the dust settled.
"This was a complete team effort," he said.
But the truth is, not even James expected this; he said it himself. He pointed out early Monday—after a long shower and slow walk to the interview room—that he "reset" his mindset at the All-Star break this season. He resigned himself to the fact that, "This is the season, and let's try to make the most of it," he said. Earlier, in the trophy room, he'd compared it to "squeezing the orange until there was no more juice left."
That sounded like resignation. That sounded like a generational athlete at the top of his craft preparing himself for the inevitable fall.
What happened instead? James reasserted his greatness, just in case anyone still doubted it. He buried the Indiana Pacers with 45 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals in Game 7 of the first round...swept the Toronto Raptors aside like a gnat, sending the organization into a coaching change a humiliating offseason of uncertainty...and turned back a formidable challenge from a young and resilient Celtics team led by Jayson Tatum, a generational star on the rise in his own right.
He played each and every one of the 48 minutes there were to play in Game 7 on Sunday night and put up 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists. This only added to his legend in elimination games in general and Game 7s in particular—a body of work that stands up to that of anyone who has ever played.
James is now 14-9 in elimination games in his career, averaging a historic 34 points per game. (For the record, Michael Jordan was 6-7 in such circumstances.)
On Sunday night, he was one lousy assist away from producing either a 40-point game or a triple-double in eight consecutive elimination games.
Oh, he's 6-2 in Game 7s in his career, too.
"After all these years, we almost expect him to do that," JR Smith said. "We expect him to get over the hump and take us with him. It's a crazy feeling."
From his calm before the storm to becoming the storm that swept the surprising Celtics out of the Eastern Conference Finals, James had done it again. The last time he lost a playoff series in this conference was 2010—in Game 6 of the conference semifinals here in this very building. Everyone knows what happened next: James went to Miami, formed his own Big Three with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won his first two championships and began the almost unfathomable streak of Finals appearances that endures to this day.
A one-man dynasty.
In either case, James and the Cavs will be underdogs. And with the caveat that this isn't a personal attack on anyone—least of all, James' most consistent supporting player on Sunday night, Jeff Green, who contributed 19 points and eight rebounds—this will be the weakest team he's been to the Finals with since he got swept by the San Antonio Spurs in his first trip in 2007.
We know "nervous" LeBron won't enter either building; that is a creature of the past. And I'm pretty confident in saying that silent, insular, "focused" LeBron won't, either. As he was surrounded by his agent, Rich Paul, and longtime friend, Maverick Carter, at his locker late Sunday night, James was relaxed and talkative and seemingly—finally—enjoying the moment.
My call is for a combination of "calm LeBron," as was the case in Game 7 on Sunday night, and something a little different: A basketball superpower for the ages who has the maturity and confidence in his own abilities and accomplishments to accept whatever the outcome will be.
"I love the competition," James said. "… But more importantly, I've been healthy throughout this run. I put a lot of work into my body, into my craft. Being available to my teammates, and being available to my franchise—the two franchises I've been with—is what's more important to me than anything. Always being available."
And then, in the final words he spoke before putting the microphone down on the table and taking the first steps toward another Finals, James said: "I'll be available for at least four more games. And we'll see what happens."