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, 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.
In eliminating the Pistons in a 98-82 rout on June 2 at Quicken Loans Arena, James followed up his Game 5 heroics 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.
Rarely if ever have teams exchanged identities so dramatically in mid-series. 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: the Game 5 double-overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It was then that the LeBron legend—started when he was a 15-year-old man-child 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. 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.
Even in mid-May 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. That was all before Game 5.
You probably know the cold, hard facts. James had 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on May 31. 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. James also vaulted right over the crucial steps that another number 23 had to take, one that most pundits saw as obligatory. It took Jordan three painful years of playoff losses before he emerged from the shadow of the glowering Pistons—James did it in his second try.
The 6'8", 250-pound James unleashed everything that was already in his arsenal. He can break down defenses off the dribble, and if he gets near the basket, he will power-dunk on anyone's cabeza. He is a threat in the open floor. Watching him take off on a one-man fast break is breathtaking: He accelerates, accelerates even more, gets his defender turned around and then does that cabeza thing. Take a charge at your peril.
He can shoot standstill jumpers from the perimeter and absurd fadeaways that are unblockable. He has a decent midrange game—witness his 16-footer from the right wing with the shot clock winding down in the last minute that proved to be the key basket in Game 3. He can post up and take advantage of his superior size at the small forward position, and he can nail jumpers off curls and pin-downs (though he does need to improve in that area). And most of all he is a willing and able passer, irrefutably in the league of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As good as James is going to the basket and firing from the outside, some defenses are hesitant to load up because they know when they do, he will find the open man.
James's Game 5 performance initiated an instant debate, rare in the NBA: Where to rank it in the pantheon of sterling one-man shows? It automatically falls below masterpieces that occurred in the Finals, such as Magic Johnson's 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist series-clincher in 1980 or Jordan's 45-point effort in '98, which he capped with the jumper that dumped the Jazz. But it surpasses Jordan's 63-point blitzkrieg in Boston Garden in '86, if only because the Bulls lost that game and the Cavs won this one.