LeBron James just leveled up.
James on Sunday accomplished the goal he famously set when he returned “home” to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a free agent two years ago: Delivering the long-suffering sports city its first-ever NBA championship.
But that’s just the beginning of this story.
James scored a triple-double with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a Game 7 road victory over back-to-back league MVP Steph Curry and the mighty Golden State Warriors — a team many exalted as being among the best in NBA history.
What’s more, James led Cleveland back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Warriors — a hole no team in Finals history had successfully climbed out of before.
And did we mention the Cavs won Game 7 on the road?
James gets UP to block Curry during the first half of Game 7. IMAGE: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
Make no mistake: This isn’t just James’ third NBA title, it’s a legacy-making win. More on that in a minute, though.
LeBron James, Game 7. IMAGE: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
Sunday’s win concludes a grueling series many labeled over after blowout home wins by the Warriors in Game 1 and Game 2.
The Cavs looked overmatched in Oakland but stormed back with an ass-kicking of their own at home in Game 3. Game 4 was closer, with the Warriors squeezing out a win and a 3-1 series advantage. But Golden State lost All-NBA forward Draymond Green for Game 5 after he was suspended for hitting LeBron James in the groin during a fourth quarter scuffle.
James antagonized Green into the altercation, then subtly campaigned for the league to suspend him in the post-Game 5 press conference. Then, in Game 6 and Game 7, James made NBA Finals history with back-to-back 41-point games. Between the antagonism, the subsequent Green suspension and James’ on-court domination, it was a masterful performance on all levels by an NBA icon.
James works against Klay Thompson during Game 7. IMAGE: THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES
In Game 7, James got help from Kyrie Irving and others, but again did everything for Cleveland. He threw no-look passes, grabbed rebounds, steadied his team and scored from both the paint and perimeter.
After the final whistle, he burst into tears.
“We’re the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit — this is special,” James said during the post-game celebration.
Last year, the Warriors beat Cleveland in six games; James and the Cavs got their revenge in seven games Sunday night.
But that’s the small picture. Let’s get into the big picture.
James as a high school phenom in January 2003. IMAGE: BOB LEVERONE/SPORTING NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES
Entering Sunday’s Game 7, LeBron had already put together a glittering individual career in 13 NBA seasons. He entered the league as a high school phenom in 2003, and was weighted with more expectations than any emerging pro before him.
Then James somehow met — and even exceeded — those expectations. Ten All-NBA First Team selections and four NBA MVP awards only begin to tell the story.
Miami, 2013: A different place and time. IMAGE: KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES
James won two championships (in 2012 and 2013) in Miami after joining forces with fellow superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But this only gained him more criticism from some corners. In 2014, he famously returned “home” to Ohio. He wanted to go back to the team that drafted him and, as he said, embark on a quest to win “one for the ‘Land.”
At times over the past two seasons, this seemed impossible. Worse still, there were times when it seemed LeBron had backed himself into a corner that would render him stuck in Cleveland watching other teams win titles for the remainder of his career. You can’t just up and leave title-less again after coming home with all the pomp and circumstance that accompanied LeBron in 2014.
James drives for a layup during Game 7 on Sunday night. IMAGE: MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/POOL/GETTY IMAGES
But now here we are. It’s Sunday night, and the conversation about LeBron just shifted with one game. That might not be logical, or fair — but it’s sports.
His Cavs just beat the Warriors, the team with the best regular-season record in NBA history, on the road, in Game 7, to win the title. It’s a seismic, career-shifting moment — even for a surefire Hall of Famer of LeBron’s already-massive stature.
James is cruising up the NBA totem pole. IMAGE: EZRA SHAW/GETTY IMAGES
James has long been an all-time great — no debate there. But his critics have also been legion.
Despite his two titles with Miami, as well as the avalanche of individual accolades, those James critics have always circled back to the one argument they could really chew on. Their supposed trump card: LeBron never led his own team to an NBA championship.
Sunday night in Oakland, LeBron blew that argument to smithereens for good. The Cavs beat the Warriors, and he was the no-brainer choice for NBA Finals MVP.
Now haters and fans alike can only bow down to King James, who once again rules the NBA — and just leveled up in league history.