CLEVELAND — LeBron James has long held to a mantra of not letting himself get too high during the best of times or too low during the worst.
Following the Cavaliers' 108-85 Game 4 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, it became evident that this year's appearance in the NBA Finals was a function of both James' otherworldly talent and his ability to lead a locker room full of players who never appeared to fit together cohesively.
"It's definitely been a whirlwind," James said of his 15th season. "There's been ups and downs. It's been good, it's been bad. For me, I just try to be consistent throughout the course of the season. Be the leader I know I can be for this ball club, for this franchise every night, no matter what was going on from the outside or the inside, and be reliable every single day. Showing up to work every single day. Putting in the work and grinding every single day.
"I have no idea how the story will be talked about of my season, but I know I punched the clock in every single day. That's for me to understand that, and I'm okay with that."
It feels like forever ago, but James at one point this season compared his mood to the first day of school when he saw longtime friend Dwyane Wade walk into the team's practice facility. Weeks later, he spoke of the excitement surrounding the impending return of guard Isaiah Thomas, the All-NBA talent who was supposed to help Cleveland forget about Kyrie Irving.
Fast-forward to Friday night's loss, and James sat idly at his locker, headphones over his ears with a towel hung over his head and face. The din of whisper-toned chatter throughout the Cavaliers' locker room was broken up only by the sound of the plastic wrap releasing bags of ice from his 33-year-old knees. His right hand was preparing to be wrapped after news of a "self-inflicted" injury following Game 1 finally surfaced.
Dispersed throughout the locker room were a host of players getting their first taste of playoff experience alongside a man who took part in his eighth consecutive NBA Finals. Following the Cavaliers' trade-deadline shakeup, James spoke of the uncertainty surrounding his new teammates and the challenge that would follow. That challenge was littered with injuries, a rotating cast of role players, a head coach who was forced to take a leave of absence and a playoff run that nearly ended in the opening round.
Through the entire season—one which James has repeatedly said felt like three, four or five seasons wrapped into one—he was there for every game, playing at an elite level through 104 contests.
As James' two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce, slowly walked toward his locker only to sit nearby in silence, his teammates spoke about what the four-time MVP provided for a team in desperate need of stability.
"He had a big impact on all our new guys, from day one of us joining the lineup," George Hill told Bleacher Report of James' season-long mindset. "Making us comfortable in Cleveland, he's been that leader, that force since we walked in here. He's been a great leader on and off [the floor]."
With the Cavaliers financially limited and paying league-high luxury-tax bills, the only way for them to improve upon last season's five-game exit from the Finals was through trades. The blockbuster trade involving Irving was merely the tip of the iceberg for a Cavaliers team that completed a 10-person, three-team deal on the day of the NBA's trade deadline.
With the final third of the regular-season schedule providing precious little practice time, James and his new Cavaliers teammates were forced to learn on the fly. When head coach Ty Lue took a leave of absence, they had to adjust again. And following Lue's return, a seven-game first-round series against the Indiana Pacers provided little time to recuperate, as the team then immediately traveled to Toronto to face the Raptors.
Eleven games later, the Cavaliers found themselves facing a familiar foe in the Warriors. And once again, the talent gap between the two proved to be increasingly insurmountable with every bounce of the ball.
That didn't deter James from trying to drag his teammates across the finish line.
Larry Nance Jr., one of Cleveland's February additions, had a firsthand look at how James set the tone for the rest of the team.
"He's obviously a leader," Nance told Bleacher Report of James' willingness to spearhead the team's uphill journey. "The resiliency. These guys are just so mentally tough. Both vocally and by example, a lot of that tone was [set by LeBron]."
A lot will be made about James' impending free agency over the coming weeks. When he returned to Cleveland in 2014, he implied it would be for the rest of his career. But with James playing at such a high level in his 15th season, he may change his mind, as he admitted to still having a lot left to give the game.
But before looking toward the future, fans of the game would be remiss to quickly turn the page.
What James did this season, both on and off the court, was nothing short of remarkable. Prior to Game 4, The "Humongotron" at Quicken Loans Arena played a montage of the bumps and bruises amassed over the season. The 50-50 balls and hard fouls. The chest-thumping and the leaps on the scorers table. The plays that led to those iced knees, the busted-up hand and a bright red left eye.
While congratulating the Cavaliers after Game 4, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said he was surprised they even made it back to the Finals after everything they had been through. The march from uncertain No. 4 seed to Eastern Conference champions wasn't solely James' doing, but Cleveland would have fallen far short of that without his superlative season-long effort.
"To be the best player in the world and to give everything you've got in your 15th season, play all 82 games, probably one of the greatest playoff runs that we'll ever see from an individual, to carry this team the way he did all season and leading by example, it's just a testament to his character and who he is as a person and as a player," Lue said of James' season. "He had a lot of opportunities where he could have sat out of games and was going through a tough stretch and wasn't playing well, but he didn't want to do that. And a lot of guys would have folded under those circumstances, but he didn't. He fights and competes to the end.
"Sometimes you can give everything you've got and still come up short."