In last night’s thrill-ride NBA Finals game 7 (20 lead changes!), LeBron James pulled off the unthinkable. That he led the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors to bring Cleveland its first championship since another LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) resided in the White House was unprecedented.
But LeBron’s unfathomable feat was that in seven games, he made the playful, once beloved Warriors unlikable.
For the past two seasons, the Warriors have been sinking moon-shot three-balls like a real-life version of the Tune Squad from Space Jam. They’re cartoonishly fun to watch, but over the past two weeks LeBron has taken Steph Curry, the squeaky-clean cover subject of Parents magazine, and the rest of the Warriors, and made them look flustered and obnoxious. From Draymond Green slapping LeBron’s balls (leading to his game 5 suspension), to Warriors big man Mo Speights subtweeting a baby-bottle emoji at LeBron, to Curry throwing his mouthpiece at a Cleveland fan, the unanimous Finals MVP flummoxed the seemingly unflappable Golden State squad. For further evidence that LeBron got under Golden State’s skin, look no further than Ayesha Curry’s post-Game 6 tweet that the NBA Finals were rigged “for money … Or ratings.” LeBron made the defending champs, and their MVP’s significant other, look petty and churlish.
In a post-game interview, LeBron compared game 7 to “a Rocky fight.” Heading into the 2016 playoffs, the 73-9 Warriors resembled Mike Tyson circa 1990: Like Iron Mike, they possessed a fearsome aura and plowed through opponents with a cold-blooded efficiency. But the Cavs pulled a Buster Douglas, upsetting the reigning champs and shattering the illusion of an unbeatable juggernaut. On the eve of the playoffs, Warriors owner Joe Lacob told the New York Times Magazine, “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team … We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the NBA to deal with for a long time.” He should’ve checked to see if his wings were made of wax before making that statement.
While LeBron leaves the Warriors in disarray, his greatest achievement is delivering a title-starved Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. He’s endured a tumultuous relationship with his hometown. After being anointed as the city’s athletic savior when he was drafted out of Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2003, LeBron failed to win a title. When he infamously brought his talents to the Miami Heat in 2010, Cavs fans burned his jersey in anger. But his return to Cleveland last season, and his monstrous performance in the Finals should finally erase any lingering ill-will in Northeast Ohio. His status as one of the greatest forwards to play the game can now be etched in granite. LeBron claimed in a press conference earlier this week that he watched The Godfather six times this postseason (but he couldn’t name a favorite quote). In the Finals, he transitioned from Cleveland’s Fredo Corleone—an overlooked son with poor decision-making skills—to Michael Corleone, the prodigal son in control of the family.
Speaking of movies, I recently rewatched Boogie Nights, and was struck by that film’s similarities to this Warriors team. In the ’70s, Dirk Diggler and company had a good run, but as soon as 1980 arrives, things quickly get go south. Despite the fact that oddsmakers currently have Golden State as 7-4 favorites to win the championship in 2017, LeBron has marked Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green as petulant heels who are easy to fluster. Is their “1980” looming?
For now, the Warriors’ freewheeling small-ball good times are over.
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