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Whatever unfolds over the next two weeks in the NBA's championship series, which was scheduled to begin on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, we are--make no mistake--beholding the LeBron Finals. Not since 1998, when Michael Jordan cleverly nudged aside Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell to hit the jump shot that gave his Chicago Bulls their sixth and last title, has the NBA had such a singular, celestial focus for its climactic event.
The San Antonio Spurs, seeking their fourth championship in nine years, are heavily favored to prevail against LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers (sidebar, page 42), but that's merely a subplot. Right now, with the memory of James's immortal Game 5 performance in the Eastern Conference finals still fresh in the mind, the story line is about the young King who has finally shown he deserves to wear a crown.
Yes, we are officially in the LeBron era, past the post-Jordan interregnum during which the league hoped--though could not be certain--that James would one day arrive front and center in the Finals. The variegated talents James displayed against the Detroit Pistons may even extend to the draft on June 28. Won't the Portland Trail Blazers, who have the top pick, be more tempted to take 6'9" Texas forward Kevin Durant, a skinnier version of James but a version nonetheless, rather than Ohio State center Greg Oden? Could a 7-footer possibly supply the same entertainment dollar as an out-on-the-floor all-arounder? More to the point, will a pivotman, even a shot-changing stalwart like Oden, wield as much influence on a game as a swingman � la James?
In eliminating the Pistons in a 98--82 rout last Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, James followed up his Game 5 heroics (already a YouTube megahit) with a performance that can be summarized in one word: mature. The tendency for James, as for most 22-year-old superstars, would have been to come out at home and try to demonstrate that his feat of scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points was only a warmup. But he didn't. His shot wasn't falling, and Detroit, being disinclined to submit to public embarrassment once again, threw waves of defenders at him. Through it all, James stayed calm and focused, qualities that were amplified as the supposedly savvy Pistons imploded. James played the role of facilitator to rookie Daniel (Boobie) Gibson, who had a career-high 31 points and hit all five of his three-pointers in a nerveless display that Cleveland coach Mike Brown called "LeBronesque." It wasn't that good, but we now have an adjective to describe contemporary playoff brilliance.
In fact, Cleveland's Game 6 victory despite James's modest stat line (20 points on just 3-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, eight assists) was the worst news the Spurs could have received out of the Eastern finals. You mean, the Cavs can still be formidable even if LeBron is merely average instead of superhuman? "If you guys remember when I was in New York," James said after the game, referring to draft day in 2003, "I said I was going to light up Cleveland like it was Vegas." LeBron may have been iridescent on Saturday, but in a strictly electric sense he should spend some of his $90 million in Nike endorsement money to put a team of engineers on standby at his old-before-its-time arena. Malfunctions forced a 21-minute delay before the second quarter because neither shot clock in the 13-year-old Q was working.
But James was on a roll. "I'm going to be a G.M. someday," he said. Considering the turnaround he pulled off against Detroit, who can doubt him? Rarely if ever have teams exchanged identities so dramatically in midseries. The Pistons won the first two games by matching 79--76 scores with a casualness that suggested a sweep. The Cavaliers' 88--82 win in Game 3 at home was considered the gimme. Cleveland did it again in Game 4, 91--87, before the playoffs' defining moment: last Thursday's double-overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was then that the LeBron legend--jump-started when he was a 15-year-old manchild in a St. Vincent--St. Mary High uniform in Akron--was validated.
The suddenness of James's ascent as a playoff hero was astounding. Before the world championships in Japan last summer, the Team USA coaching staff was disappointed in James's effort and his inability to function offensively unless he had the ball. The coaches would have made LeBron the first cut after his lackadaisical initial week of practice were it not for the massive public relations fallout that would have resulted from the axing of the league's most globally marketed player. During his 27.3-point, 6.7-rebound, 6.0-assist regular season, there was a general yawning acceptance of James's talent but not really an appreciation. He dropped from All-NBA first team to second team, and sometimes seemed oddly disconnected from his fellow Cavs on the court.
Even two short weeks ago the public was defining James by his flaws. He didn't take the big shots--witness his pass-off to forward Donyell Marshall in the waning seconds of the Game 1 loss. ( Marshall missed a three from the corner.) He didn't complete the big plays--witness the layup James missed late in Game 2. He looked so tentative at times, and his team looked so uncomfortable trying to back him, that it hardly seemed as if he was speeding along a learning curve. Perhaps it was just simple humiliation.
That was all before Game 5.
You probably know the cold, hard facts. James had 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. He played 50 of the 58 minutes. He scored the Cavs' final 25 points, including all of their 18 points in the two overtimes of a 109--107 win. The Pistons, normally angry and arrogant, gently succumbed, as though hypnotized by James's brilliance. He started the series as tyro but in that game became tutor, in the process accomplishing the unthinkable: He made Eastern Conference basketball watchable and lifted the hopes of a city desperate for a winner in this, the Cavaliers' 37th season.