The most incredible aspect of the LeBron James saga is that a basketball player who has been touted as a transformative figure since he was 17 years old has yet to lose his ability to surprise us. On Thursday night, James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to victory in Game 6 of the NBA Finals with a 41-point performance that inspired those of us who care about basketball to text far-flung friends in disbelief, just as we had when he scored 25 consecutive points against the Pistons as a 22-year-old in leading the Cavs to their first finals; just as we had when he scored 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting (to go with 15 rebounds) for the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, en route to his first title; and just as we had as recently as Monday, when he scored 41 points in extending the series to Game 6. On Sunday, he will lead the Cavs, a deeply flawed team representing America’s most-beleaguered sports city, into Game 7 of the NBA Finals, and regardless of the outcome James should and probably will win finals MVP.
The A-plot for this entire NBA season has been the Golden State Warriors, the 73-win juggernaut that seemed to be inventing a new, better way to play basketball, a game predicated on exquisite spacing and selfless ball movement, all impeccably engineered to deliver the ball to the two greatest shooters on Earth. Throughout their history-making campaign, it seemed as though the Warriors had solved the sport as we’d all known it and had moved on to perfecting some new and improved version of the sport. Their rougher-than-expected march through the Western Conference playoffs, crystalized in their icy dismantling of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, gave them the added veneer of a battle-tested team of destiny.
LeBron James is now one game away from destroying all this. As he has so many times throughout his extraordinary career, James spent Thursday night reminding us how much a single spectacular player can assert his will on what is ostensibly a team game. In 43 minutes of play, he scored 41 points on 27 shots, to go with 8 rebounds, 11 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks, and, perhaps most astonishingly, one turnover. These numbers, gaudy as they are, don’t really do justice to the experience of watching Game 6. It was like seeing the Golden State Warriors play basketball against every member of the X-Men rolled into one person. He was everywhere on the court, and in every one of the Warriors’ heads.
James plays his sport with a combination of brilliance, beauty, and violence that’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. He is now 31 and has already played more minutes in his career than Larry Bird or Magic Johnson did in theirs. In just the past six years, he’s played 21,617 minutes in the regular season and playoffs. No. 2 on the minutes played over the past six years list is Kevin Durant, with 18,901. To put that another way, LeBron has played about 73 more games than anyone else in the NBA during that stretch, and yet he doesn’t appear worn down, and he still plays the game with the instinctive, preternatural genius of a child prodigy. At one point on Thursday night he scored 18 consecutive points, and it all felt very natural, like there was something vaguely ridiculous about the notion that anyone else needed to score. Only a handful of other NBA players are capable of such offensive domination, but none of them also happen to be the best passer in the sport. He is currently leading the NBA Finals—not just his team, but both teams—in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals.
The team that LeBron has dragged to the precipice of immortality isn’t the squad anyone envisioned in the giddy months that followed his “I’m coming home” Sports Illustrated essay of July 2014. The fantasy of the Cavs’ “Big Three,” awkward and fraught from the beginning, has never looked so hollow. Kevin Love played 12 minutes in Game 6, and helped the Cavs the most by picking up early fouls that kept him stuck to the bench; the refs’ quick whistle on Love may have been the strongest evidence to support Ayesha Curry’s claim that the NBA had rigged the game for the Cavs. Cleveland’s star point guard, Kyrie Irving, is an immensely gifted one-on-one player whose favorite passing lane is the space between the floor and his hand. In the finals, LeBron is outdistributing his marquee point guard and outrebounding his marquee power forward while outscoring everyone, and somehow he’s winning while doing it.
The Cavs’ second-best player on Thursday was power forward Tristan Thompson, an excellent rotation player who temporarily turned into a young Karl Malone thanks to LeBron’s passing ability. In 2016, the Cavs have played Richard Jefferson, Mo Williams, and Dahntay Jones for significant minutes in back-to-back elimination games in the NBA Finals and won both of them. This would normally be a sign that your basketball team is broken, and yet the Cleveland Cavaliers are 48 minutes away from winning one of the most shocking titles in NBA history.
Last year, LeBron dragged a bruised and battered Cavs team that was missing Irving and Love all the way to Game 6 of the finals, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in a flatly insane 45.7 minutes per game. (He led both teams in points, rebounds, and assists in last year’s finals, too.) It was a superhuman effort in a series in which his team never really had a chance, a resounding reminder that he was still the best and most spectacularly complete player on Earth. This year he has surpassed himself, and going into Game 7 anything seems possible.
Sports fans love to debate the Greatest of All Time, and basketball fans are more obsessed with that mythical designation than most. In 2016, there were rumbles that Stephen Curry was surpassing Michael Jordan. How long ago that seems. I don’t know where LeBron James will end up in whatever arbitrary pantheon we choose to embrace by the time he hangs it up—that future is unwritten, and should remain so for a long time. I do know one thing for certain: If the Cavs lose on Sunday, there will be those who will say James came up short, that he didn’t do enough and couldn’t get it done, and I will wonder what the hell sport they were watching.