CLEVELAND - With his 39-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist performance in Game 3, LeBron James moved into fourth place on the all-time NBA Finals scoring list with 1,175 points, passing Sam Jones (1,143), Bill Russell (1,151), and Elgin Baylor (1,161).
He has already become the all-time leading scorer in playoff history, now with 6,091 points in his career.
Still, James will be the first to tell you that those records don’t mean a whole lot right now, at a time when he and his Cavaliers team are down 3-0 to the Warriors in the third finals face-off between these two teams in as many years.
That was James' mindset during the requisite media availability after practice. Media availability is generally not a player’s favorite time, especially after your team had just suffered a loss as devastatingas the one James and Co. had to endure in Game Three on Wednesday (Thursday, Manila time).
James stepped onto the dais, his mood decidedly subdued. He was attentive to the questions and thoughtful with his answers. Questions ranged from how he would prepare his body for the coming game with such a short turnaround to Game 4 (He says he has been getting ready round the clock, both mentally and physically), to his play in the final minutes of the last game.
The narrative of The Finals usually does not allow its participants to do much analysis of the past or the future. That is usually left to the analysts and the media. It is imperative that one remain in the moment, to remain locked in.
James’ answers showed how much he has grown, in his willingness and ability to look both forward and back in the midst of the fray. No doubt his cumulative playoffs and Finals experience shaped his growth.
This is an evolution of the LeBron James who, after going down 3-1 to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, stated, “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.” The player who, in the summer of 2010, promised the Big Three would bring “not one, not two, not three…” championships to Miami with the Heat.
He is beginning to see more clearly his place in NBA history, not just in terms of the oft-debated G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) status or how he has played a role in the stories of his teams, but also how he has influenced the histories of other franchises as well.
He has played both the victim and the foil to other teams in their quest to be the best. In 2007 his Cavaliers lost to the dynastic San Antonio Spurs. The Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan-led team would prove to be another thorn in his side in 2014, when the Heat lost to the Spurs in five games.
He lost in a second straight Finals to Golden State in 2015 after his prodigal return to Cleveland. On the flip side, his Heat defeated the Spurs in 2013 and his Cavs avenged their loss to the Warriors in 2016.
“I think it’s just part of my calling to just go against teams in the midst of a dynasty,” he mused.
Growth also allows one to assess a rival with honesty and to recognize that respect for another’s greatness does not take away from one’s own.
Of his current opponent, the Golden State Warriors, James had this to say: “This has been the best team in our league the last three years. They won a championship, and last year it was the greatest regular-season team we had played, probably one of the best postseason teams that everybody’s ever seen as well…. And they’re playing like one of the best teams once again.”
That is not to say that he has conceded defeat in the 2017 NBA Finals. He is a great competitor among a collection of great competitors, in a series rife with future Hall of Famers. He is playing at the highest level, in the place where every kid with hoop dreams aspires to be: playing for an NBA title. The Cavaliers’ backs are against the wall as no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit.
Though he has not silenced the critics and the doubters, he has merely stopped listening to them. When asked about those who were critical of his pass to Kyle Korver late in the game that would result in a missed 3, and potential game saver, James asked reporters to look up one of his favorite quotes from “The Man in the Arena” by Theodore Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
And when asked what he would do if he could have the play over again? His reply was this:
“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation. Draymond [Green] would switch on me with five fouls. I would get him leaning. I would drive left. I would see [Kevin Durant] step up. I would see Stephen Curry drop on Kevin. And I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest three-point shooters in this league’s history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner. I would do the same exact thing.”
The world at large will never know exactly what goes on in James’ head. All we have to know him is what he chooses to share and his performances on the court. This LeBron seems to know that does not have to rely on bravado and promises to know what he brings to the table.